Politics is meant to be an art of contrasts. In an ideal world, candidates who advance extraordinary claims or adopt extreme positions should either be compelled to provide arguments and evidence that justify their stances, or exit the race gracefully. When US Democrats were campaigning for a crucial recent mid-term election during the ascendancy of the Tea Party, Vice-president Joe Biden quipped that their message only needed to be, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.”
The self-delighting buffoon who currently leads — by a wide margin — polls of likely Republican voters ought to be the perfect foil for a sensible candidate. Donald Trump loves to speak unguardedly about what he would do as president. When he does so he seems to tap, effortlessly, into a troubled national id, saying things that vanished from political conversation decades ago, when what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” of American politics went out of fashion. A leading proponent of the “birther” conspiracy, which questioned whether President Obama was a genuine American, Mr Trump has wasted no time in explaining how his leadership would help the country recover from the errors of its spineless incumbent.
President Trump would call the bluff of the Chinese, who use the myth of global warming to make US manufacturing non-competitive. He would impose a 25 per cent tax to end their flood of cheap imports. He would build an impressive, and relatively inexpensive wall to ward off problematic Mexicans, who bring crime and drugs into America. And he would create a database of American Muslims, or, better yet, prevent those who travel abroad from returning lest their radicalism further imperil the homeland … Every news cycle produces an outrageous soundbite.
Misogyny, racism, and religious bigotry have rarely been deployed so well in American politics. Whenever Mr Trump says another tactless, fact-less, or breathtakingly stupid thing (he often manages all three) there seem to be only two consequences: feigned outrage from the GOP candidates he has overshadowed, and a surge in his polling numbers. Often, his rivals hesitate to condemn him outright because he has dared to say overtly what they will only imply. That, distressingly, is largely why he remains a frontrunner. But Trump’s appeal may also transcend the GOP’s baser instincts and fulfil a need that lured earlier generations towards mass political movements like Communism and Fascism.
In his brilliant study of the psychology of mass movements, the “stevedore philosopher” Eric Hoffer, a man who had witnessed firsthand the appeal of extreme politics to those ill-used by capitalism, noted that: “Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of the ardent young Nazi, ‘to be free from freedom.’”
Like other demagogues, Donald Trump offers his followers an escape from the burden of freedom. In difficult and uncertain times he lets them surrender any obligation to make informed choices about a complex world. He knows where the problems lie, and how to solve them with a few sweeping policies. His sinister opportunism will be eerily familiar to anyone who knows the history of the twentieth century.
Mercifully, despite his current success, there seems little chance that Trump will remain a frontrunner. He overreaches too predictably and extemporizes too often for the illusion to last. What is truly embarrassing about his candidacy, however, is how quickly it has exposed the moral bankruptcy at the heart of one of America’s major political parties. When proudly ignorant newcomers like Trump and Carson can upstage seasoned politicians like Bush, Rubio, Cruz, Jindal and Kasich — the blame cannot be placed entirely on a credulous electorate.