Never mind dog whistles. If any doubt remained about where Donald Trump draws his inspiration, we no longer need to wonder. He revealed his source on Veterans Day, promising to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections.” (emphasis mine)
The good news about Trump—the only good news about him—is that he has no hidden agenda. He says what he means, and he means what he says. “Vermin” is a word right out of the Nazi playbook. Hitler, along with Nazi propagandists, used it to describe Jews to dehumanize them. Trump has been trending along this direction for some time. We have no reason to think that he’ll back away from it. Remember his “stand back and stand by” instruction to the Proud Boys during his debate with Joe Biden in 2020.
I’m not suggesting that Trump is planning an antisemitic campaign in 2024, although it wouldn’t come as a surprise if he did later. Rather, he has begun dehumanizing his critics and his opposition, which is a prelude to the vengeful administration he is planning if he’s returned to office.
Not to understate it, the rhetoric is worrisome especially given that Trump telegraphs his intentions. Words have meaning and we would do well to take him at his word.
But what is perhaps more troublesome is contemplating Trump’s continuing support among a surprisingly, disturbingly large segment of voters. This coming election, like the one in 2020, is not between a Bush- or a Reagan-style Republican and a traditional Democrat. The choice, rather, is between a candidate, Joe Biden, who believes in democratic values, norms and processes and one who doesn’t, who instead has aspirations of consolidating power by obliterating opposition and the Constitution if necessary. That’s the choice.
That choice is troubling enough. But what are we to make of those Americans who support Trump, despite his declared intentions? That’s the most troubling division: between those who accept the rules and the rule of law and those who don’t; between those who see reality and accept it and those who deny reality, or worse, see reality and disregard it in favor an essentially lawless regime.
H.L. Mencken, the columnist and cultural critic who wrote for the Baltimore Sun for decades, famously referred to the American public as the “booboisie”. Frank Capra, the film director and producer, portrayed the fickleness of the public in films as a stampeding mob that could, on a whim, switch from support of the story’s hero to howling opposition and back. (See “Meet John Doe,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” to name a few.)
Trump’s continuing political survival must give pause to the democratic ideal of the people’s wisdom. We may not have a better alternative to democracy, but it’s disillusioning to say the least, to think that a person so eminently unqualified by character, experience, psychological fitness and intelligence could be a serious candidate to an office that literally holds life and death power—not just to individuals but to humanity.
The issue isn’t so much Trump as it is the American public. Democracy theoretically depends on an informed public, but it’s questionable whether the American public passes the test. Any number of tests have found profound, distressing ignorance on the part of the men and women who are entitled to elect our public officials. Until relatively recently, however, we were fortunate—maybe lucky—enough that the men and women who ran for office were informed and were intelligent enough to perform the duties of the offices to which they were elected.
Of course, not all of them, but for the most part the majority.
Retired Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s longest serving White House chief of staff, wondered in an interview what it would say about our country if Trump were elected again in 2024. Kelly came away from the experience dismayed at what he witnessed. “What’s going on in the country that a single person thinks this guy would still be a good president when he’s said the things he’s said and done the things he’s done?” Kelly said in a recent interview. “It’s beyond my comprehension he has the support he has.”
I have been struggling for some time to understand and explain to myself why so many Americans still support Trump. I’m still working on it. A retired Democratic U.S. senator from a Midwest state who served in Congress for 30 years told me recently that when he returns to his former state, he no longer recognizes it or the people he represented for three decades. It is as though aliens had inhabited the bodies of his former constituents.
Any number of pundits have written recently about the state of American democracy. Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times wrote about Republican state officials who are attempting one way or another to circumvent the outcome of elections that they lose. Thomas Edsall has written about the demographic and structural impediments to democracy. I can modestly say that I also have written about the threat to American democracy for quite a while. You might call me an early adopter.
I have no conclusion here. I am disturbed, along I’m sure with all of you, with the mood of our country, and what’s happening in other democracies. We share a growing awareness that America isn’t immune. The 2024 election is less than a year away.