Tim Kipp: Trump is a seismically more dangerous demagogue

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This nation is in a painful and necessary self-evaluation of its political system brought on by the ascendency of the Trump regime.

In a recent article "Trump is just another garden-variety demagogue." (Brattleboro Reformer, 3/22/19) writer and Vermont Senator Becca Ballint argues, in part that Trump is basically no different than previous demagogues in our history.

While her articles are consistently thoughtful, this most recent piece deserves a challenge and a reconsideration from a more historical perspective.

The article states that as bad as Trump is (and he is) he represents nothing particularly unique in the world of demagoguery. His homophobia, misogyny, racism, malignant narcissism, truth aversion et al. conforms to a classic topology of a demagogue. For sure, but there is more to this.

Hannah Arendt, the political theorist who wrote the landmark, "The Origins of Totalitarianism," in a subsequent book on a holocaust henchman, Adolf Eichmann suggested such authoritarian personalities are, in fact rather ordinary, rather banal, albeit possessed of a perilous disconnect between thought and action.

The historian, Robert O. Paxton tells us that a demagogue can lay a foundation for an authoritarianism system. Any contemporary version of authoritarianism would not come in a traditional morphology (such as a Hitler or Mussolini) but would adapt to the circumstances of the existing political economy. Or as Sinclair Lewis (among many others) wrote; American fascism would come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.

Trump is no garden variety demagogue compared to the likes of political bigots such as the nativist- anti-immigration American Party-aka the "Know Nothings," which attracted many federal and state office holders in the 1850s, or like the home-grown racist terrorism of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Ku Klux Klan in 1865, or Father Charles Coughlin, the 1930s radio preacher of hate, or George Lincoln Rockwell, the Holocaust denier who founded the American Nazi Party in1959, or Alabama governor, George Wallace, who trumpeted "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" during his 1963 inaugural speech. Just to identify a few notable examples.

Trump is a seismically more dangerous demagogue because:

1. As president he holds the most powerful political/military office on the planet - backed by a rampant military industrial complex that presides over a military that is larger than the next nine nations combined. In1973 historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. warned of a growing "imperial presidency." Trump and the GOP are extending that executive reach. Witness Trump's abrogation of climate and nuclear disarmament agreements and his declaration of a phony border "national emergency" and his ongoing lacerating political style.

2. He has a compliant, ethically challenged, sycophancy in the form of the reactionary Republican Party, a party that has willfully placed political power before the national good and democracy itself.

3. He has the support of the most powerful propaganda machinery in US history — the Fox Channel. This system more pervasive than the Committee on Public Information, a World War I government agency tasked with selling the war, designed by the father of modern advertising, Edward Bernays or the Office of War Information the WWII government propaganda agency.

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Fox systematically twists its reporting to favor conservatives and continues to dominate the cable news world, nearly topping CNN and MSNBC combined. Fox is Trump's primary source for information and a breeding ground for advice on what he should think.

4. While only 20 percent of the total electorate, Trump's supporters are zealously loyal, some are true believers, some religious bigots and most are regular people who are victims of a system driven by class inequalities. These citizens are the most vulnerable to the maestros of fear and manipulation - Fox and Trump.     

5. He has control of the most powerful nuclear arsenal on earth (of which we are only left to speculate and hope that there is, in fact a covert fail-safe system in place to counteract any Trumpian impulses). This is reminiscent of the last months of the Watergate crisis when Nixon's instability became increasingly evident.

6. Trump and his senate Republican colluders are hammering an unprecedented mark on the federal judiciary. Five of the 12 circuits courts (US Court of Appeals) now have more than 25 percent Trump judges. He has appointed more in his first two years than any of the previous five presidents in their first years.

Trump's choices are Federalist Society clones, a radical conservative/libertarian legal group who according to the Washington Post has achieved an "unprecedented peak of power and influence." Five of the current Supreme Court members are from the Federalist Society. Overall, the Trump federal judicial system is increasingly more ideological, white, male, and young, thus whittling the judicial system into a less representative more politicized branch of government whose influence will be with us long into the future.

7. Trump is also tapping into other on-going anti-democratic trends such as the continuing consolidation of corporate influence at home and nativism abroad and the rising tide of white supremacy in the US. The Southern Poverty Law Center currently tracks some 1,020 hate groups, which is a 30 percent increase since 2016. Trump appears to cultivate a symbiotic relationship with white supremacists such as Breitbart News and his former advisor Steve Bannon.

8. Lastly, Trump displays a starkly observable psychological instability of intellect and emotional health. He has infested his administration primarily with corporate hacks after his own image by appointing cabinet secretaries that are antagonistic to their department's mission. He has built a kakistocracy, (yes it's a real word) meaning a government run by the least suitable or competent.

His simplistic syntax, his repetitions, his incoherence, his narcissistic frame, and his slothful intellect should be of concern to us all.

Our nation has survived these last two years, (if you are still in the middle and upper classes) and we well may continue, but the threats remain real given the larger gathering anti-democratic trends combined with the emergence of the Trump presidency. So how bad is bad? We will never become a pre-WWII authoritarian regime but any further erosion of our democratic structures will only bring further harm to our most marginalized citizens.

This system has historically been able to endure existential threats but in years previous we were a more united country with a less partisan congress that would not axiomatically put party before country. History will demonstrate how resilient our system actually is. Our obligation, of course, is to keep on fighting for real democracy by shaping that history.

Tim Kipp, of Brattleboro, is a retired history teacher of 39 years and a political activist since the 1960s. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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