This week’s U.S. presidential debate was a teachable moment for Canadians and a chilling reminder that we should never underestimate the staying power of political demagoguery.
American pundits and pollsters agree that Donald Trump lost the first debate to Hilary Clinton on Monday night. But he is still standing, though wounded, and he shouldn’t be when you consider he is a sexist, misogynistic, ill-informed bigot who attacks Muslims, Mexicans, women, and more.
This is the man who tweets rants and spouts so many lies that websites and fact-checker groups have sprung up just to keep track of them. None of this matters to the self-styled demagogue because he simply piles one offensive slur upon another until people become desensitized and immune to the shock value.
As the campaign grinds along, Trump is normalizing a style of dialogue that ignores facts and preys on fear, hate and intolerance — all to gain popularity, and of course votes.
The word demagogue could have been invented for him because it refers to a rabble-rouser who leads a mob, a politician who seeks support by appealing to popular prejudice by whipping up passions and making false claims, rather than rational arguments.
His assault-rifle rhetoric and aggressive ad hominem attacks are as foreign to Canadian values as loaded revolvers in the glove compartments of cars or semi automatic pistols in night table drawers. But the escalating nastiness and appeals to what’s base in human nature is being adopted by a growing number of politicians and society in general.
We polite Canadians like to think we are kinder and gentler than all this, and most of us see this form of anti-democratic demagoguery for what it is: destructive, polarizing and corrosive to the core. Yet in Europe we are witnessing a growing anti-establishment, anti-immigration, nationalistic wave of fear-fuelled resentment, and a powerful lurch to the extreme right.
It is seen in the Freedom Party of Austria where a debate in May became a political embarrassment; in France’s National Front Party where the leader has compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation of WW2; and the ugly Brexit debate in Britain which led to the murder of a Labour MP, slain by a man screaming “Britain First.”
Just as we can pollute the natural environment, we can pollute the public square. It’s done through toxic rhetoric, by attacking people’s character and values, by spreading fear and lies. Trump is a poster child for this, saying climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese, claiming Obama was not born in America or that Mexicans are rapists. All this is described by the New York Times as a, “blizzard of falsehoods, exaggerations and outright lies.”
Trump is leading us into a fact-free world and many are falling for it. In the primaries he won more votes than any other republican candidate in history and he is currently running in a dead heat with Clinton.
Despite the lies, the blaming and cheating he is still standing because common sense flies out the window when the a strong wind of demagoguery blows in the door. Trump understands that people would rather appear angry than fearful or uncertain, and he gives them permission to take out that fury on those they consider “inferior.”
History shows us that anxiety makes the crowd turn to a powerful commander, but the more this happens the weaker and less capable people become. This is alarming because during uncertain times we need open-minded thinkers, informed citizens who can listen to evidence-based, reasoned debate and then weigh facts and make thoughtful judgments.
The US election should be a strong warning that we need to understand what demagoguery is and how it works, because this kind of tactic doesn’t lead to common ground or help us resolve tough issues. When politicians flirt with the dark side of human nature they divide the public into tribes willing to oppress others rather than cooperate. We are seeing what happens when charity and pluralism are replaced by the unyielding one-sidedness of an angry tribe.
When I interviewed American philosopher and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky recently, he described what is happening this way: “When you can’t answer an argument shriek. Just rant, call people names, slander them. Anything to undermine an argument you can’t respond to.”
Image credit: Gage Skidmore