America will forget Trump

Donald Trump’s mulish refusal to accept defeat in the US presidential election is alarming observers of American politics. Their concerns are heightened by public demonstrations supporting Trump’s demagogic populism, his reactionary political attitudes, and his barefaced lies about electoral fraud and cheating.

It is clear that Trump and his henchmen are trying to frustrate President-elect Joe Biden’s accession to office despite his clear victory in the 3 November election. One troubled former Republican congressman recently told a TV interviewer that Trump had turned the Republican Party into a cult, a personal fiefdom, and that he would control it far into the future. Others view Trump as a dangerously narcissistic and charismatic force that is threatening American electoral democracy by moving to defy and deny the assumptions, understandings and conventions on which the nation’s political processes ultimately rest.

There are certainly grounds for some unease given Trump’s personality, history and his efforts, so far unsuccessful, to overturn the election result in the courts. His relentless Twitter storms, full of sound and fury, are also intended to increase public uncertainty, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which Trump has largely ignored, has doubtless helped to sharpen concerns as the numbers of infections and deaths across the United States have risen exponentially.

But it may be unduly pessimistic and premature to start mourning the passing of American democracy just yet. The US is a country with a long history of confronting and ultimately casting aside charismatic political and religious extremists and demagogues who momentarily capture the attention and seduce American citizens. There is no reason why Trump should avoid a similar fate despite his ability to exploit modern media for his own ends.

Perhaps the crucial feature of charismatic political authority is its essentially unstable nature. It is grounded entirely in the personality, the vision, the belief in the powers of the leader. It has neither traditional nor legal–rational support and, in Max Weber’s formulation, it ‘lasts only so long as the belief in its charismatic inspiration remains’.

Trump’s charismatic and demagogic appeal will always attract a diminishing cohort of worshippers, but his empty slogans have passed the peak of their ability to seduce. The election result showed that slogans like ‘Make America great again’ and ‘Drain the swamp’ are diminishing assets. Their magic appeal to popular resentment is losing its force.

Few American demagogues have been dispatched more effectively than the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, who held the US in thrall during the great anti-communist witch hunt in 1954. During congressional hearings on alleged communist influence in the US Army, McCarthy rashly named a young lawyer as a member of a communist organisation. Counsel for the army Joseph N. Welch immediately and famously replied: ‘Have you no decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?’ Those few words, viewed by millions on black-and-white television, shattered public confidence in McCarthy’s demagogic anti-communist mission and marked the collapse of his political prominence.

The case should serve as a warning to Trump: McCarthy’s lawyer was an odious young man named Roy Cohn. Cohn was Trump’s mentor in his early years in New York.

There are other notable cases of demagogues destroyed by their own hubris: the segregationist George Wallace, the Louisiana dictator Huey Long (killed by gunshot in the 1930s) and Ross Perot, the billionaire third-party candidate who ran for president in 1992 and 1996 and was quickly forgotten. This short list hardly scrapes the surface.

Even in religiously obsessed America, frauds, fakers and fools can’t withstand the scorn of people awakened to the emptiness of their message of salvation, provided in exchange for a few dollars to save your immortal soul. Who today remembers Billy Sunday, the former baseball player who became one of the most celebrated and influential evangelists during the first decades of the 20th century by preaching the literal reality of the devil and hell? Nobody. He’s merely a passing joke in the old Frank Sinatra song ‘Chicago’. And who remembers Aimee Semple McPherson, the glamorous Pentecostal evangelist and media celebrity in the 1920 and 1930s, and founder of something called the Foursquare Gospel Church? She reportedly drowned at Venice Beach and exists now only as dated 1930s fashion shots.

Of course Trump might yet make trouble. But the fact is that Biden, not Trump, will command the attention of the masses once the transfer of power is in place. Biden, not Trump, will be the story and the Trumpians will fade into richly deserved obscurity, comforted only by the money they have amassed and probably abused.

Perhaps my view is unduly optimistic given that there seem to be no formidable old bulls left in the Republican Party to tap Trump on the shoulder and tell him it’s time to fold his tent. But I am comforted by the wise of words of the great Alexis de Tocqueville writing in 1838. ‘The Americans’, he said, ‘frequently allow themselves to be borne away, far beyond the bounds of reason, by a sudden passion or a hasty opinion and sometimes gravely commit strange absurdities.’ He concludes: ‘The habit of inattention must be considered as the greatest defect of the democratic character.’

We can only hope Americans heed de Tocqueville’s observation. We cannot afford another aberration like the vulgar, lying, foul-mouthed demagogue who has occupied the White House for the past four years.