Having breathed that sigh of relief (and faintly, of wistfulness), we can begin the bleary-eyed awakening from the fever dream. This is the time in which we have thoughts like: “What was all of that?” and “Wasn’t he that guy from The Apprentice?” and “Did Fox News seriously just seem like the reasonable journalists in the room?” But most of all, what we will have to confront is the old and familiar truth that the American political consensus may be better than a lot of the alternatives, but that doesn't make it so great. We are likely to be spared having a fascist major party candidate, and that is no minor peril to have dodged, but having a merely Islamophobic and xenophobic Tea Partier in his place is hardly ideal. And can any of us think of a less inspiring place to wake up in than where we were before? Iowa has suggested that at the moment of decision, the Republican voter still hears the siren call of his true masters at Fox News and responds, even after he has tried to kick the goad and break the spell (there was some truly naked shilling for Rubio on Fox’s “analysis” after the last debate); it turns out SuperPACs and money and mud-slinging and attacks ads do still turn elections; and we have learned – or probably will soon-- that the party Establishments do after all retain a fairly firm grip on the outcomes of the primaries – all of which are rather uninspiring champions, to say the least, even if they are the forces that saved us, this time, from the veritable brink. We thus emerge from the haze of the last few months to find a familiar ruined landscape, and we don’t need to pretend we’re thrilled at the sight. Moreover, even if Trump and Cruz don't win, they've meanwhile succeeded in making the other candidates a great deal more like them, and arresting for the foreseeable future any progress on admitting more refugees from Middle Eastern conflicts, crafting a more generous immigration policy, etc.
All of this is to assume, I repeat, that Cruz and Trump really are toast—which is perhaps an over-bold assumption to make at this point, when we have had only a single caucus – one in which, lest we forget, this maniacal pair placed first and second. But for either one of them to actually ascend to the highest office would require fundamentally altering some deep historical patterns in our politics; whereas if we are right, and they have been arrested already in their climb or will be soon, then they fit pretty comfortably into the familiar groove of far right cranks and petty tyrants in America.
If we take the long view of American history, we find that every era has produced its characteristic demagogues – the “Pitchfork” Tillmans and Father Coughlins and George Wallaces and Gerald L.K. Smiths – but that they have very rarely obtained or even come close to real power. The evil that they do comes not through holding office or reaching the centers of power themselves, but through the impact they wield indirectly on the establishment and the consensus (this is in addition, of course, to the more direct harms they often cause through their bigoted language, through instigating vigilantism or hate crimes, etc.). The demagogues shift the political center of gravity; they expand the range of what is considered permissible or possible; they transgress standards and protections ensuring basic levels of decency that were formerly held scared; they render the unthinkable thinkable – or, by the same token, they make a deplorable present seem more acceptable than it really is by showing in their own persons what an even worse future might look like.
Because they play this role of subtle and indirect poisoning, we tend not to remember them, and therefore, not to assign them blame, once their brief moment of strutting and fretting in the limelight has passed. Most of the really great crimes of American history have been committed not by them, after all, by the establishment, which has had the means and firepower to do so-- the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese internment camps, the saturation bombing of Cambodia and the creation of “free fire” zones in Vietnam, the arming of death squads in Central America, the white phosphorus rained on Fallujah and the 15-year death-in-life of Guantanamo Bay—these things were not done or dreamed up by the demagogues, mugging at the fringes of authority, but by the “insiders,” the professors, and the party favorites – the Dr. Kissingers of the world.
The demagogues can hardly escape responsibility, though, just because they don’t appear in the Hall of Presidents—they serve the toxic functions of moving the center of the target, of rendering the status quo more tolerable than it should be, of making the mad and murderous irrationality of power seem reasonable by comparison.
How did we get to a point, for example, where Marco Rubio and Fox News seem like the ones who aren't the chief menace to democracy and decency and all we hold dear? Rubio two debates back was suggesting that every form of (even legal) immigration to the United States was a potential fifth column for ISIS fighters. Today he was criticizing President Obama simply for visiting a Muslim place of worship. He is planning to step up border enforcement to such an extent that not a single undocumented immigrant could slip through (an impossible task, but one in the pursuit of which thousands more migrants may be pushed into the deserts of our borderlands and perish of exposure). In the last debate, he engaged with a straight-faced question about whether or not the United States should “close down mosques.” Rubio apparently thinks we should, if there are jihadists gathering there (and he may wish to imply that this is true of all mosques, we can’t be sure). When Megyn Kelly explained the elementary first amendment principle that even Islamists have a right to free expression and assembly, so long as they do not engage in violence, and certainly ordinary Muslims have a right to practice their religion (-- by the way, did you ever think that you’d be rooting for Megyn Kelly in anything?), Rubio became deliberately vague (much as Christie would later do over the question of racial and religious profiling) saying:
Megyn, that's the problem. Radical Muslims and radical Islam is not just hate talk. It's hate action. They blow people up. […] We must keep America safe from this threat. And yes, when I am president of the United States, if there is some place in this country where radical jihadists are planning to attack the United States, we will go after them wherever they are, and if we capture them alive, they are going to Guantanamo.Rubio knows that his audience is not going to analyze what this means and just how many civil rights protections Rubio intends to violate by his promise to "go after them wherever they are" -- they are listening for key words, "Guantanamo," "radical Islam." So we see that our “establishment pick” candidate, the one who’s not the most paranoid bigot on stage, will say pretty much anything that he thinks the base wants to hear, however deplorable, and that he cannot bring himself to say forthrightly that he recognizes a basic right to religious and expressive freedom if he thinks it might cost him votes. Who does this remind you of?
Can you imagine the justified uproar that would have greeted a similar discussion on the debate stage about closing churches or shuttering synagogues? Something tells me that word of such a conversation would have headlined every major newspaper the next day, whereas the little squib about “closing mosques” was not even presented as a significant moment in the debate in any of the coverage I saw. This is the way in which the demagogues have already won. They have successfully stripped away any unwritten protections or standards of etiquette that might have once shielded Muslims from outright baiting and scapegoating. They have rendered a whole religious minority fair game for blanket attacks and have placed "closing mosques" on the table as a policy option. Evidently, this will still be a Trump election, even if Trump were to drop out tomorrow.
Demagogues frighten us in the moment by promising fanciful crimes, but they almost never reach a position where they can actually commit them – the far greater danger comes from what we find ourselves willing to tolerate in order to replace them from the people we accept as "reasonable" alternatives, à la Rubio. The political odyssey of Barry Goldwater, and the liberal reaction to him, is one parallel that comes to mind. Let us recall that Goldwater entered his 1964 campaign for president with a foreign policy agenda that hinted at the possibility of a nuclear first strike. In Richard Hofstadter’s telling, Goldwater bore an ideological totalism so extreme that he found it well to risk the annihilation of life on earth in service of his favored abstractions. The intellectuals, including Hofstadter, were surely right to fear a Goldwater presidency above all else (after all, one wouldn't have had the option of reassuring onself, “it won’t be the end of the world if…”) and to favor a Cold War consensus politics—any consensus – as a preferable alternative-- just as we are now entitled to find Rubio preferable, however slightly, to Trump or Cruz. (Indeed, Cruz is an especially apt parallel to Goldwater-- he shares with the latter what Hofstadter identified as an odd and distinctive mixture of isolationism and extreme militarism. As Goldwater once did before him, Cruz straddles the worst of both worlds in American foreign policy – he lacks and even explicitly renounces any kind of democratic idealism in regard to the world’s autocracies of the sort that the Bush administration at least theoretically propounded, while simultaneously calling for the “carpet bombing” of the Islamic State-- Finally! Under Cruz, we'll have war without the good intentions.) Hofstadter’s feelings toward Goldwater, as displayed in The Paranoid Style and Other Essays, are quite understandable, but looking back on the campaign from decades later, Goldwater seems a very minor and even comic figure in our history, who never had an especially plausible shot at the White House. The Cold War consensus of realpolitik and “containment,” meanwhile, which seemed so “reasonable” compared to the Senator from Arizona, appears in retrospect to have been the true danger. It was a series of Democratic administrations, not Goldwater or any other right-wing demagogue, that began our nation’s murderous war on Southeast Asia. It was “containment,” and not Curtis LeMay, that propped up dictators and overturned popular democracies throughout the Third World.
Such policies were preferable to Goldwater’s strategy of nuclear annihilation, but I would encourage us not to set our moral sights so low. Hofstadter, for instance, spends much of The Paranoid Style critiquing the “agitational mind,” and contrasting it unfavorably with political approaches that reconcile themselves to the complexity of public affairs. Among the latter, he evidently counted the type of high church consensus politics that the architects of our Cold War policy exemplified. Such a generous view of a worldview that supported a regime in Indonesia that carried out a genocide and that initiated wars that led to the deaths of millions in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia seems now like it could only be the product of someone who was distracted by the colorful obscenities of the extremist candidate from perceiving the ordinary and familiar evils around him.
In the midst of the carnival of demagogues we’ve been witnessing over the past months, we face the same danger of growing complacent toward our own “normal.” It is true that it is very important that the demagogues not be allowed to obtain actual power (Goldwater wouldn’t be so easy to write off now if he had actually won); but we must also ask ourselves what we are willing to tolerate from the “establishment” in their place. Similarly, we have to be vigilant to see what formerly taboo outrages have begun to migrate, without our noticing it, into the “mainstream” of politics, through the subtle infusions of demagoguery. Donald Trump probably will not become the president, or even the Republican nominee, but someone who vaguely mimics his rhetoric and talks about “closing mosques” and raves about ISIS infiltrators with green cards just might. American warplanes will probably never quite “carpet-bomb” IS-held territory – but they might kill a great many more civilians than they are at present. So too, a massive deportation campaign targeting every undocumented immigrant in America will most likely never be carried out – but our current, Democratic president, a proponent of immigration reform, just last month deported 77 women and children asylum seekers to El Salvador who had never had an attorney in their hearings.
A similar dynamic has been at work in France since November, where an alarming apparent upsurge in the popularity of the Front National – a French Trump and Cruz ticket of sorts – proved to be mostly chimerical as the election played out. The liberal intelligentsia sighed with relief that the demagogues did not win, as we are doing here – but perhaps they were too relieved to notice that all the time the Socialist government in power was taking advantage of an extended state of emergency to massively violate the civil rights of France’s Muslim population, including closing mosques (as Rubio would suggest we do), raiding homes without warrant, and placing people under house arrest on spurious charges – with devastating consequences to their careers and reputations. It turns out it didn’t take a Le Pen victory for France’s Muslims to become the victims of virulent scapegoating—just as it doesn’t take a successful Trump candidacy to make our country subtly yet indelibly more Trumpian in its character.
Ultimately, demagogues in politics are like toxic personalities most places – beneath all their “death and thundering” (Heine) they are actually troubled and unfortunate people who can do little harm. What we most have to fear from them is not what they do – but the fear itself that they provoke in us and the way that it leads us to respond. Trump and Cruz will probably not attain power; they will not go on to deport millions and bomb countries into oblivion – thus, history will most likely forget them and in so doing, forgive them. History will remember, however, those with real power who mirrored the demagogues. It will remember and judge us if we allow their distractions and their cries for attention to make the more systematic and lasting evils of our society seem palatable by comparison.