In 1976, director Sidney Lumet released the Academy Award-winning film Network; featuring Peter Finch as the angry news anchor Howard Beale whose refrain, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” resonated both on and off the screen. Reeling from the energy crisis, Watergate scandal, Vietnam syndrome, and stagflation, many Americans identified with Beale’s lament and his demagogic power.
With the emergence of Donald Trump as the front runner for the Republican Presidential nomination, the politics of Lumet’s film are playing out in primaries where angry voters are flocking to the polls and voicing their discontent with the political establishment and business as usual. Trump is a demagogue who plays upon the fears of his constituency regarding terrorism, war, immigration, jobs, stagnant wages, and a government controlled by the corporate interests who arranged the bank bailout following the 2008 Great Recession. Many of Trump’s supporters are also white working-class Americans who feel threatened by the demographic shifts in America with the growing number of black and Latino/a voters as well as changing values regarding issues such as same sex marriage.
The American experiment in democratic government is being tested today, but the issues of democratic discontent and the threat of the demagogue are hardly unique to our current political crisis.
Perceiving their world as under attack from terrorists, immigrants, and political correctness they find solace in Trump who exploits their fears but offers little in the way of remedies. The American experiment in democratic government is being tested today, but the issues of democratic discontent and the threat of the demagogue are hardly unique to our current political crisis.
In his commentaries on the writing of the Constitution, James Madison expressed concern with what he termed “the mobocracy” and the fears that a demagogue might mislead the uneducated masses. After all, one of the key events leading to the drafting of the Constitution and creation of a stronger central government was Shays’s Rebellion in which debtor farmers revolted against the creditor class. The central government under the Articles of Confederation lacked the powers to suppress popular rebellion, but the authority of the new central government was clearly demonstrated through the crushing of the Whiskey Rebellion (1794).
Nevertheless, the framers recognized that the concentration of power in an office such as the Presidency offered an opportunity for abuse, so authority was diffused within three branches of government that also placed limitations upon the people. Voting qualifications were essentially left to the states, but the people’s interest would be lodged in the popular elections every two years for the House of Representatives. The Senate, however, was to be chosen by the political class represented in the state legislatures.
Limitations upon the people were also evident in the indirect election of the President through the Electoral College. The original intent of the Electors was to be a check on popular passions and demagogic leaders by allowing the Electors, selected by the governing elite, to overrule the people if deemed necessary.
Minority interests were also protected by a Supreme Court whose members would serve life terms and once appointed be adverse to the shifting moods of the electorate. Although the initial minority interest the court was most concerned with protecting was the property class, the court evolved into an institution that proved capable of addressing Constitution protections for black Americans as well as members of the LGBT community.
In the new American republic voting was a privilege usually reserved for white property-owning males. This narrow definition of democracy was challenged by the rise of Andrew Jackson, who was viewed as a demagogue by many of his political opponents. With the advent of Jacksonian democracy, property qualifications were abolished for the political participation of the common white man.
This political revolution, however, was not without its downside. While greater democracy was evident in party nominating conventions, the era was rampant with political corruption such as Jackson’s “pet banks” that contributed to the Panic of 1837. The Jacksonian era also introduced the concept of gerrymandering in the creation of legislative boundaries for political advantage—an issue which continues to plague the political process today. In addition, Jackson reflected the popular political prejudices of the day, as the rise of the common white man was based upon Indian removal and the expansion of slavery.
While groups such as the Know Nothing Party denounced the threat of Irish immigration, it was the issue of slavery expansion that almost destroyed the American democratic experiment. Southern demagogues convinced state conventions that the only way to save slavery was though succession which was crushed in a bloody civil war that also ended slavery. The post-Civil War period witnessed the growth of big business and industry alongside Southern Reconstruction whose premature ending was symbolized by the Compromise of 1877 following the disputed Presidential election of 1876.
Reaction to the corrupt politics of the Gilded Age led to labor unrest as well as formation of the Populist Party, while many Populist leaders in the South, such as Ben Tillman in South Carolina, employed racial fears to implement Jim Crow segregation and deny blacks the ballot as guaranteed under the Fifteenth Amendment. While the Populist fusion with the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan was defeated by the Republican William McKinley in 1896, the popular uprising against corporate power was continued with the Progressive movement. Progressives, representing the middle class and fearing even greater change from the growing Socialist Party, succeeded in enacting many democratic reforms suggested by the Populists.
Among the Progressive achievements were the income tax, direct election of U. S. Senators, women’s suffrage, primary elections to determine party candidates, and the initiative, referendum, and recall. These democratic reforms, however, did little for black Americans, and anti-immigrant sentiment was apparent with prohibition, the Immigration Act of 1924 designed to discriminate against the New Immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and the national growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
The crisis of the Great Depression brought new challenges to American democracy, amid concerns that economic insecurity might fuel a move toward dictatorship as was occurring in Europe. Demagogues such as Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin enjoyed a large following while embracing anti-Semitism and expressing admiration for European fascism. While he eschewed race baiting, Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long was the “messiah of the rednecks” with his “share the wealth” plan. Long’s political threat to Franklin Roosevelt was removed when the Senator was assassinated, while New Deal reforms such as Social Security helped to formulate a welfare state that checked political revolution.
Victory in the Second World War and the post war expansion of opportunity with legislation such as the GI Bill failed to alleviate insecurities. Concerns about another depression along with fears arising from the atomic bomb, Cold War, communist subversion, and changing roles for women and minorities plagued the post war era. Anticommunists labeled New Dealers, civil rights advocates, union leaders, and feminists as influenced by communism.
Although lacking the charisma of a Donald Trump, demagogues such as Joseph McCarthy exploited American anxieties regarding communism and ushered in a period of suppression in which the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights were often ignored. While McCarthy overplayed his hand in the Army-McCarthy hearings, considerable damage was done to Americans who dared to exercise freedom of speech during the Red Scare.
The anticommunism of the 1950s also paved the way for the Vietnam War which helped to destabilize America during the 1960s as antiwar protestors questioned participation in the brutal Southeast Asian conflict. While the war continued to rage, the Civil Rights Movement achieved passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. However, the ballot did not usher in economic inequality, and when Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, many black communities exploded in uprisings that were quelled by military occupation.
While running as an antiwar Democratic Presidential candidate and criticizing the nation’s economic inequality, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Following Kennedy’s death, the Democratic Party in 1968 ignored Eugene McCarthy’s protest candidacy against the war and nominated Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey; leading to demonstrations at the Chicago convention which were put down by what was later termed “a police riot.”
Seeking to take political advantage of discontent with the protest movements of the era, Alabama Governor George Wallace posed as a demagogue who would run over protestors and denounced the “bloc”—read black—vote. Wallace’s 1968 campaign appearances were rowdy and featured some of the violence we are beginning to witness at Trump rallies. In the final analysis, Wallace’s third party bid was thwarted by Richard Nixon who borrowed from Wallace’s playbook by embracing a less bellicose Southern strategy and calling for the support of America’s silent majority. Nevertheless, as the Watergate hearings and other Congressional investigations uncovered, Nixon was a demagogue who, along with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, was willing to disregard the law and Constitution in pursuit of personal power.
The Constitutional checks designed by the framers seemed to function as intended during the Watergate crisis, but these protections proved less effective against the rhetoric and political acumen of Ronald Reagan and his handlers.
The Constitutional checks designed by the framers seemed to function as intended during the Watergate crisis, but these protections proved less effective against the rhetoric and political acumen of Ronald Reagan and his handlers. Reagan, playing upon the insecurities of working class white ethnics, or the so-called Reagan Democrats, blamed affirmative action and welfare queens for the declining economic opportunity in America. He also reinvigorated the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and Reagan is often credited with ending that global conflict. However, his invasion of Grenada was an unnecessary military action to avoid scrutiny of the failed military mission in Lebanon, concerns about communist expansion in Central America resulted in death squads killing tens of thousands in the name of anticommunism, and the Iran-Contra affair was a violation of Congressional legislation.
With the end of the Cold War, it appeared that demagogues playing upon foreign policy fears were no longer relevant in American politics. That certainly changed with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Today, many of the voters supporting Trump identify terrorism as the number one issue confronting the nation, and it is sobering to think that another act of domestic terrorism might propel Trump to the Presidency. Trump’s base is also concerned with the economic inequality of the bank bailout and corporate greed and control of the American economy. In this latter case, Trump voters share similar concerns with supporters of Bernie Sanders.
The bottom line is that Trump represents a tradition of political demagoguery and democratic discontent which has characterized the United States throughout its history; often placing the blame for a deteriorating domestic and foreign situation on immigrants and minority groups. The question is how to address this discontent with its often racist subtext.
While Hillary Clinton is doing well with African American voters, the Democratic Party has sought to prevent dissidents, like George McGovern in 1972 and Bernie Sanders today, from ever capturing control of the party through the imposition of establishment super delegates.
Lacking this antidemocratic tool, the Republican Party establishment denounces Trump as a con-artist and tends to denigrate those supporting the erratic businessman. On the other hand, some in the party reconciled to a Trump nomination insist there is nothing to fear from a Trump Presidency as the system of checks and balances will limit the Trump populism.
Missing from much of the discussion surrounding the Trump phenomenon is a concern for the conditions contributing to the insecurities of many working-class Americans. Rather than simply calling people names and engaging in middle-school adolescent behavior, it is necessary to offer specific solutions to the economic, health, and educational needs of Americans and stop the scapegoating of Muslims, Mexican immigrants, blacks, and members of the LGBT community for the ills of American society.
Democracy’s discontents as expressed by Donald Trump and the fictional Howard Beale are best addressed by considering root causes and avoiding the demagoguery that has too often characterized American politics.