One of the most worrying trends of this election cycle is that tempers are rising to the boiling point and physical confrontations are taking place. A war of words is natural during an election, but to come to blows is one step away from knives and guns. President Obama gets high marks for his “we need to calm it down” speech this week. Let’s hope his fellow Democrats can get on board with that and cool it on the protests. He’s less likely to influence the acolytes of Trump, however.
Part of the problem is that everyone loves a showman, and that’s really what Trump is. They want the one-liners, the snide comments, the put-downs. All politicians do this to a degree, but Trump takes it to a new level. It’s now a circus act, and as P.T. Barnum knew only too well, we’ve always been willing to pay good money to join the line to a sideshow, however bogus it may be. As one of the conmen in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn puts it as he makes plans to fleece the inhabitants of a small village: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”
H.L. Mencken, Twain’s equal in cynicism, famously said: “No one in this world… has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” (This is usually misquoted as “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”)
Mencken comes to mind as you witness the fervor with which some of our fellow-citizens at Trump events chant, sway, and even close their eyes in rapturous prayer when he repeats his anti-immigrant mantras and his vow to lead us once more to the pinnacles of Greatness. Back in 1920 Mencken could have been reporting from a Trump rally:
“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
For those of you in despair at the outcomes of the most recent primary elections, perhaps there is some cold comfort in the fact that we’ve been here before and survived.
But that was a world without nuclear weapons.
If you liked this see “Trumpland: The Ugly Side of America”