How to counter a demagogue

The Republican convention has just finished and the Donald gave his speech. We will hear more responses and reactions over the past few days but I watched a fair amount of it on the live stream and I couldn’t believe anyone in a position of leadership could so clearly be a manipulator and demagogue and still get voter support.

Trump fits all the definitions of demagogue. It seems so obvious but scary at the same time as if it is a collective hallucination or some kind of crowd psychosis. The audience who were mostly his supporters appeared to like the speech. The rest of us are left scratching our heads in disbelief…

The weird thing is apparently that speech was an example of Trump trying to back pedal on some of his more outrageous ideas.

“There was once a theory that, having bagged the nomination, Mr Trump would abandon dystopian politics for a more moderate and sunny message—the sort of thing general elections are usually fought on. But in this speech he mainly added a few facts—on America’s rising murder rates, for example; though violent crime is at a historic low—to the wild and sketchy claims he has made about America’s problems during the primaries. The result was a decent speech; but, for the extra voters Mr Trump needs, perhaps an unconvincing vision of America.”

From Donald Trump’s coronation in the Economist.

In the Intercept they write Donald Trump’s Convention Speech Rings Terrifying Historical Alarm Bells

“Trump had just one message for Americans: Be afraid. You are under terrible threats from forces inside and outside your country, and he’s the only person who can save us.

The scariest part is how Trump subtly but clearly has begun melding together violence against U.S. police and terrorism: “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities,” he said, “threaten our very way of life.”

This is the favorite and most dangerous message of demagogues across all space and time. After all, if we know our external enemies are deeply evil, and our internal enemies are somehow their allies, we can feel justified in doing anything at all to our internal enemies. That’s just logic.

And if anything, Trump’s speech is actually more terrific, fabulous and huge than those of previous fanatics, since he promises he’s going to fix everything overnight. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end,” Trump says. “Beginning on January 20th of 2017, safety will be restored.”

This use of fear to destroy democracy is so old that it’s described exactly in Plato’s Republic, written in Ancient Greece around 380 B.C.”

Earlier this week I read a long story on the New Yorker written about Trumps autobiography by the ghost writer of that book. It is a fascinating read.

I’d imagine that a percentage of voters are hoping that there is another Trump who is might not be quite so crazy as he seems but that is looking highly unlikely now.

In DONALD TRUMP’S GHOSTWRITER TELLS ALL in the New Yorker magazine the ghost writer Tony Schwartz tells us about writing the Trump biography back in 1987.

It turns out it was mostly a work of fiction since Trump really had nothing to say of consequence. A couple of paragraphs here but you should read the whole article if you can.

“But the prospect of President Trump terrified him. It wasn’t because of Trump’s ideology—Schwartz doubted that he had one. The problem was Trump’s personality, which he considered pathologically impulsive and self-centered.”

“Trump has been written about a thousand ways from Sunday, but this fundamental aspect of who he is doesn’t seem to be fully understood,” Schwartz told me. “It’s implicit in a lot of what people write, but it’s never explicit—or, at least, I haven’t seen it. And that is that it’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes, and even then . . . ” Schwartz trailed off, shaking his head in amazement. He regards Trump’s inability to concentrate as alarming in a Presidential candidate. “If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time,” he said….
“This year, Schwartz has heard some argue that there must be a more thoughtful and nuanced version of Donald Trump that he is keeping in reserve for after the campaign. “There isn’t,” Schwartz insists. “There is no private Trump.” This is not a matter of hindsight. While working on “The Art of the Deal,” Schwartz kept a journal in which he expressed his amazement at Trump’s personality, writing that Trump seemed driven entirely by a need for public attention.”

The back story goes that the actual writing of the book was extremely difficult because Trump wasn’t able to sit still for any more than 3 minutes at a time and getting useful information from a direct interview style process proved to be impossible. They got around this by Schwartz observing Trump for a period of 18 months mostly by eavesdropping on actual phone calls in the usual dat to day business and extrapolating from there.

Schwartz observed that Trump didn’t read books at all.

“But Schwartz believes that Trump’s short attention span has left him with “a stunning level of superficial knowledge and plain ignorance.” He said, “That’s why he so prefers TV as his first news source—information comes in easily digestible sound bites.” He added, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.” During the eighteen months that he observed Trump, Schwartz said, he never saw a book on Trump’s desk, or elsewhere in his office, or in his apartment.”

I was thinking about what makes it possible for large sections of the public to even give any attention to Trump and I wondered what if there is such a thing as political illiteracy?

The answer is yes. Part of the reason for the rise of figures like Trump is that the mainstream media just doesn’t have the ability or the intent to investigate stories. On the other hand – especially in the U.S the rise of channels like Fox News skews political news to the lowest common denominator.

That could be discounted except a quick check of the numbers suggests that something like one third of the U.S population subscribes to Fox. Of course that doesn’t mean they watch it but it does seem like a key background factor in the dumbing down of the population regarding political literacy.

Increasingly the other key influence on political literacy is social media and in the mass market that means Facebook. In Facebook puts friends above publishers in “News Feed Values” and ranking change Josh Constine writes that

“Facebook pulls in an outrageous amount behavior and survey data about what people want to see. That’s the only way the 200-person News Feed team can keep up with the interests of over 1 billion daily visitors.

“Another…human touch…is how we evaluate success” says Mosseri. “When we launch changes, we see if people act different. We look at what they do and what they say. Do they Like more or do they comment more? Do they spend more time? Do they share more? Etcetera.”…
The problem is that behavior data alone could preference click-bait that’s not actually satisfying.”

My personal view is that with a dumbed down mainstream media, more people getting their “news” from what is essentially a filtered Facebook feed and people just reading less generally there is no real sanity check on voting behaviours.

Unfortunately all of these media effects seem to produce a range of half digested political opinions or extreme cynicism about politicians and voting at all.

I wondered how many books most people read in a year now. I think that reading a large number of books each year could be a proxy for independent enquiry and thought. I’d agree that not all books are the same but it could be an indicator of sorts.

In The Decline of the American Book Lover which is a hopeful story that readership levels are improving.

“If you are the sort of person who believes that TV and the Internet have turned American culture into a post-literate scrubland full of cat GIFs and reality TV spinoffs, then this news will probably reinforce your worst suspicions.”

In Here’s what demagogues like Trump do to their countries when they take power Michael Signer is very worried.

Trump isn’t winning based on experience or ideology. Polls show that voters gravitate toward him because he’s convinced them he’s the candidate who “tells it like is,” when, in fact, he’s done just the opposite. On the most important questions about he’d govern, he’s managed to sidestep voters’ and journalists’ questions. He’s said little that suggests he’d hew to constitutional norms. And he’s conducted himself in a manner not befitting a leader of the free world. In a vacuum, we’re left to assume that he’d govern much like demagogues who’ve come before.

Michael Signer has written a book called Demagogue.

“Demagogue tells the story of the fight against demagogues in several arenas: in American history, in political theory, and in foreign policy and democracy promotion. Along the way, readers meet fascinating figures and remarkable stories, from the Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long, the Detroit “radio priest” Father Coughlin, and the Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, to great thinkers including Plato, Thomas Jefferson, and Hannah Arendt. The end result is a vision of a demagogue-free democracy that crucially depends on an active, self-maintaining culture of civic values among citizens, called constitutionalism.
With constitutionalism, citizens can take control of democracy for themselves, arresting the cycle of regimes and protecting democracy through political culture, rather than just through checks and balances and institutions.”

I am not a U.S voter but on behalf of the rest of the world I’d hope that U.S voters can come up with a viable strategy to stop the Trumps of this world.

P.S FWIW I have just found this article How Hillary beats Trump: 9 steps she must take to defeat the dangerous demagogue . Reassuringly it seems to support my thoughts on politicial illiteracy. It goes into more detail on what kinds of strategies would work.

Update: 2018 Robert Reich writes well on this topic.