Winter is coming: Reflections of the frightening power of demagoguery

Posted on 09 Nov 2016 at 9:51am

Jones, Arnold WayneI still remember, with amazing clarity, my middle school’s race for class president. Two candidates stand out: Brian Koehr and Paige Apple. I was friendly with both, although not close friends with either. Brian was happy and enthusiastic; Paige was quiet and studious. Going into their candidate speeches, I honestly didn’t know who I was going to vote for. I seem to recall being favorably disposed toward Brian.

To this day, the essence of their speeches stays with me. Paige’s was along the lines of, “Here’s my plan for what we all need to do to make this a better school;” Brian’s was along the lines of, “Pizza day every day in the cafeteria!” I voted for Paige, and hoped for the best.

Brian won by a landslide.

That was my first experience with the nature of politics, and the power of the vote.

The truth was, who became class president then didn’t matter. There’s probably no more toothless job in America. Brian, Paige… They were both going to do the same thing — give a speech at homecoming, pick a theme for the school dance, get their faces in the yearbook smiling back. Memories. It was all for show, a gesture toward citizenship, a lesson learned.

And it did instill in me — and probably everybody in school that day — the awesome power of demagoguery: A candidate who will say what the people want to hear has an edge over one who speaks hard truths. That’s not always the case, of course. Sometimes the hard truth is resonant and the pandering rings false. Voters can surprise you.

And certainly they surprised us all Tuesday night.

Brian Koehr was a nice guy in a powerless position who made meaningless promises that had no lasting impact beyond the insulated microcosm of eighth grade. That is not the same with Donald Trump. He is not a nice man. He is not powerless. He is not benevolent. And soon he will wield as much power as any human ever has.

His agenda is chilling. Among his campaign promises: Repeal the Affordable Care Act (and replace it with…? He won’t say); appoint ultra-right-wing justices to the courts, including the Supreme Court; build a wall between the United States and Mexico, whatever the diplomatic cost; impose a ban on, and even deport, Muslims, irrespective of their citizenship status; overturn marriage equality.

I know Trump supporters who allay my concerns about what his presidency will look like by saying, “Don’t worry — he’s not going to do all the things he says.” Then why in the world did you vote for him? Anyway, those are just some of the things he has publicly advocated. What about the ones he hasn’t even thought of? If even half of these come to fruition, it would be devastating for every single person I know.

Even if you can’t trust what he says, what will America under Trump look like? Presumably, it will be one forged by Mitch McConnell and others in the Republican Party who will exploit Trump’s inexperience with the political system to their own end. In many ways, I’m more afraid of a Mike Pence presidency then a Donald Trump presidency. Pence has core values, however twisted, and political experience. He can actually get an agenda through.

What will Trump do? That’s what has me as scared as I have ever been about the future of my republic.

And I’m about as “safe” as you can get. I am a middle-aged, middle-class, white male. Aside from not being Christian or straight, I’m as mainstream as a person can be in this country today.

Still, as a journalist, I feel vulnerable. Donald Trump has waged a war on journalism, encouraging disparagement and violence against the journalism pen at his rallies. If I feel that way, imagine how it must feel to lesbians recently married who now wonder whether their entire union could be overturned by the stroke of a pen? Imagine what it feels like to be a DREAM Act-er concerned over deportation, or a Muslim, or a disabled person, or someone with health insurance for the first time.

I fear for them. I fear for them much more than I fear for myself. And they are my friends.

Twelve years ago, I asked a colleague: If he could hand-pick the nominees of both parties, but could have absolutely zero say in the outcome of the election, who would he choose? My very liberal friend grinned widely and said, “Easy! Hillary for Democrats. And Mike Huckabee for the Republicans. He’s a nut job. He could never get elected. In the bag.” I said, “Sure, it’s nice to think that, but what if did win? Could you live with that?” My colleague brushed away my concerns. “Never happen!” he assured me. “Voters couldn’t be that badly fooled.”

I was not so confident then. I couldn’t imagine a world in which the presidency of the United States was run by someone who honestly believed that the earth was 5,000 years old and that Adam and Eve played with the dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people,” H.L. Menken opined.

Mike Huckabee concerned me, but at least a right-wing fundamentalist is predictably nutty; not so much an inexperienced businessman with multiple bankruptcies, shady business dealings, a disastrous personal life and temperament more akin to a mental patient than a statesman. Huckabee may have been dangerous, but even he was manageable. He had limits. I wonder how manageable Donald Trump will be, from the left or the right. I suspect even diehard Republicans, when they are done cheering for their victories in the Congress and their defeat of the much-hated Hillary Clinton, will brush the sleep from their eyes in a few days, and realize what their policy is hath wrought.

It is the nature of Americans to be optimistic, to hold out hope for the best in people and make lemons out of lemonade. Fight the good fight, and win or lose, move onto the next one. There is honor in the battle, whatever the outcome. I suspect we will all do that, if not tomorrow, eventually. Maybe not all of us, and maybe not soon. I have serious doubts now for myself.

This has never been a more somber, sobering and frightening time in my adult life. Not the Cold War. Not 9/11. Those were forces from outside that seemed to threaten our survival.

These threats — those of fellow citizens endorsing a hollow candidate with no concrete, constitutional ideas — come from within. Millions of our fellow Americans watched as Donald Trump mocked the disabled, made inane promises, threatened his opponents, disparaged women, committed sexual assault, lied about everything from anti-American protests to his taxes, bred race-hatred and McCarthy-esque suspicions about our fellow Americans.

And they voted for him. They said, “We trust you.”

I have my doubts about that. I don’t think this was about trust. I think this was about animosity toward the opposition. Hillary Clinton didn’t lose this election last night — she lost the moment Obama won in 2008, when the GOP resolved to undermine him at every turn and sow seeds of contempt and conspiracy, mount racial divides and whisper campaigns. They spent eight years priming the pump for a coup. And they won while we all looked on, mouths agape, cattle in the abattoir, lining up brainlessly, uncomprehending of what was happening.

The small bright spot seems to be that Clinton apparently received more popular votes than Trump. That’s cold comfort (ask Al Gore), but it does give me a pinhole of light to stare at. Sometimes you have to experience the scourging to appreciate the salvation.

I still believe in hope. I have to. But I’ve never felt such ennui about my fellow citizens. “Apres moi, le deluge,” the monarch said.

Better grab a towel.

Comments (powered by FaceBook)