Op-Ed: Trump’s place in history? He is the supreme American demagogue
Donald Trump’s tear across the democratic and constitutional landscape of America is not over. The latest collateral damage of his lies and attacks is the ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney from her leadership position as House Republican conference chair. The Republican caucus threw her out because she dares to speak the truth about Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Trump is not going away. The Republican leaders who have disregarded the truth to enable him should know what future historians are going to say about the former president — and them, by association. He will be showcased for decades to come as the greatest symbol of American demagoguery of all times. Compared with Trump, demagogues like Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy will become footnotes.
There is little unique about Trump’s methods — which mirror those used by other demagogues — but he has been able to deploy them all in the most powerful office in the world. A personality cult, anti-democratic consolidation of power, populist lies, ceaseless attack on critics, and support for white supremacy are part of the formula Trump employed to gain the presidency and secure near-total control of the Republican Party.
The 20th century offers some relevant historical examples. Consider the notorious Mississippi demagogue Theodore G. Bilbo, a Democratic governor who rose to national prominence in the 1930s on a platform of white supremacy. In striking parallel to Trump’s program to build a wall to keep out immigrants he assailed as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists” and “animals,” Bilbo was elected to the U.S. Senate twice in part by campaigning against Black equality and interracial marriage.
In 1940, Bilbo’s highly publicized program for returning 12 million Black Americans to Africa helped him clinch the Senate for the second time among voters in Jim Crow Mississippi. Bilbo lived by the mantra, “Anything done is all right unless you get caught.”
One of the most extraordinary stories in the annals of American demagoguery is that of the Texas husband-and-wife gubernatorial team James E. and Miriam Ferguson. During his second term as governor in 1917, the male Ferguson was impeached, convicted and disqualified from holding future office in the state for misappropriation of public funds and contempt of the Texas Senate.
But this did not stop Ferguson, who had a genius not only for oratory but also for hedging the law. Casting himself as a martyr to corrupt city politics, excoriating the press, Ferguson campaigned hard on behalf of his wife for governor, and she won twice. “The people of Texas,” he said on the stump, “will have two governors for the price of one!”
So beloved was Ferguson by his followers that Will Rogers, a humorist of the day, observed, “Jim Ferguson has 150,000 voters in Texas that would be with him if he blew up the Capitol building in Washington.”
So too are there abundant similarities in the personalities and political strategies of Trump, Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy. Long, adroit at bullying his way out of impeachment, was an energetic annihilator of democratic and constitutional norms, claiming at one point, “I’m the Constitution around here.”
Among the favorite targets of Long, who served as Democratic governor of Louisiana before winning election to the U.S. Senate, was “the lyin’ press.” He consolidated power over the Democratic Party in his state through verbal assaults, the destruction of careers, the use of military force and patronage reserved only to party members who demonstrate strict, fawning loyalty.
McCarthy, Republican senator from Wisconsin, rose to media prominence by telling preposterous lies about communist infiltration of the State Department and the army. In his 10 years in the Senate, he left countless ruined careers, a severely divided Republican Party and diminished faith among Americans in political leaders and the ethics of government.
Trump’s fate in history is to become the superstar in this cast of dishonored political figures. He will be remembered as the first full-blown demagogue in the White House, one who incited seditious violence on the U.S. Capitol — and for little else. Over time, Democrats and Republicans will unite in this historical understanding of Trump, just as they have long since reached consensus about Democrat Huey Long and Republican Joseph McCarthy. The judgment of Trump will not be a partisan matter.
If Republican leaders care about how history will judge them, they need to join Cheney in the determined fight to put truth and the health of our democracy above party and power. In the long arc of history, truth always wins over demagoguery.
Eli Merritt is an adjunct assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and author of the forthcoming book “Disunion Among Ourselves.”
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