Donald Trump R.I.P.
Donald Trump has his problems. He is impulsive. He has the attention span of a gnat, the self discipline of a two year old, the morals of an alley cat. He is the sort of man you would want to keep away from your children. But he had one advantage over his opponents. When he said: "Make America Great Again" he was pointing to America's loss of status. In 1950, we had 27.3% of the world's GDP. As of 2008, it stood at 18.6%. We lost 1/3 of our share of the world's economy. If we still had what we had, most of our problems would either be gone or else greatly diminished.
This is a gradual process. While our ship slowly sinks, the people in charge (the ones in Washington) fight over the wealth that remains. Others want status for their groups: they fight over who gets to sit at the captain's table.
Trump didn't come out of nowhere. He had predecessors and he will have successors. He wasn't the first and he won't be the last. To get a sense of perspective, we should look at his predecessors.
His predecessors were demagogues. In his book "Demagogue", Michael Signer quoted James Fenimore Cooper for the four characteristics of a demagogue.
1. He presents himself as a man of the people.
2. He establishes an emotional connection with the general public.
3. He uses that to gain political power.
4. Once he gains power, he breaks the rules.
First we have Aaron Burr. He was one of the founders (with Thomas Jefferson) of the Democratic party. After his duel with Alexander Hamilton, his political career crashed. He tried to regain status by raising an army. Historians don't know what he planned to do with it, but most likely he planned to conquer parts of northern Mexico. He was charged with treason, but nothing came of it.
Next there is Andrew Jackson. A true populist, he grew up in poverty in the western wilderness. His friends were men like himself. He despised the north eastern elite. While he was President, the Supreme Court ruled a Georgia law unconstitutional (Worcester v. Georgia). Although he wasn't asked to enforce the decision, it was generally believed that he wouldn't have done so.
Next we have Huey Long: Governor then Senator from Louisiana. As Governor, he ignored the legal limits on his office. When criticized by the press, he tried to have a surtax placed on newspapers and to outlaw what he called "slanderous material". He avoided removal from office by the legislature because he rounded up enough votes in the Senate to prevent a conviction
Finally, we have Franklin Roosevelt. Like Jackson, he attacked the Supreme Court, but he went farther, trying to pack it. He broke very long standing norms: e.g. he ran for a third term. He tried to remove limits on his power: after the Supreme Court struck down the National Industrial Recovery Act, he pushed through a series of laws to expand his power over the economy. He systematically lied about his intentions about joining World War II. He demonized Japanese Americans (not just immigrants), putting them into camps. He also demonized rich people, calling them "economic royalists". He said "They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred." Like Huey Long (and many other demagogues), he tried to intimidate the press
Trump wasn't the worst demagogue, partly because he was seeking celebrity rather than power, partly because he was incompetent. He was never interested in power. Hillary Clinton ran for President because she wanted to be President. She looked on campaigning as the price she had to pay to become President. Trump ran for President because he wanted to run for President. He looked on serving as President as the price he had to pay for campaigning. As President, he much preferred holding rallies to presiding over Cabinet meetings or deciding policy issues. As a thought experiment, imagine someone like Huey Long as President when the Corona virus struck. He would have recognized it as a wonderful opportunity, grabbed it with both hands, and run with it. He would have said: "We have been attacked by China. We are at war. We need to declare martial law and suspend habeas corpus. We need legislation for emergency powers. We need to control the information streams to prevent misinformation from helping our enemies." Later, once the regulations were in place, he could say: "If you see someone in public not wearing a mask, punch him." Most likely, he would have been successful. He approval rating would have soared. Voters like dynamic leadership, especially in times of crisis.
To prevent another Trump, we need to devote more thought and effort to stopping demagogues.