Although I've tried to steer clear of politics on this blog, sometimes I can't help myself. The emergence of Donald Trump as a possible Republican presidential candidate in the U.S. is irresistible: in addition to being entertaining, he is alarming.
Two recent articles on the Trump phenomenon struck me as important. One, by George Packer in the current issue of The New Yorker, places the New York real estate mogul in the context of American populism. He explains how this sometimes volatile posture is dangerous in its oversimplification, pitting good against evil, demanding simple answers to complex problems.
He cites the demagogue Thomas E. Watson, who wrote in 1910: "The scum of creation has been dumped upon us. Some of our principal cities are more foreign than American." He goes on to talk in alarmist, apocalyptic terms about the dangers of crime and vice following the "corrupting hordes of the Old World descending on us."
I can't help but think of the crisis in Europe today, with migrants from Syria and north Africa landing in Europe and hardly being welcomed. Or of the fear-mongering one hears today in this country on talk radio about foreigners--in a country made up of foreigners.
Have we made no progress since 1910? The hatred of Jews, Catholics, and other undesirables arriving in the U. S. a century ago is now directed to Mexicans, by Mr. Trump and others, or to any of the immigrants seeking a new life in America. He calls them criminals and losers.
As Packer shows, the populist outsider as an anti-political force includes not only Ross Perot and George Wallace but Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. But Trump is distinctive in his crude, shoot-from-the-hip style that makes some "ordinary folks" happy because he sounds authentic even if he is really a showman.
Trump, with his jutting chin and curled lip accentuating his arrogance, reminds me of Mussolini--and for good reason. Packer notes several comments by Trump that should alarm anyone who takes this candidate seriously, such as his speculation that representative government may not be necessary. Why, he once asked his audience, do we need an election? Does he seek a coronation?
And why bother, he implied yesterday in a radio interview on foreign policy, to know the leaders of the world, such as the men involved in ISIS, since by the time Trump is elected, a new cast of characters will appear on the world stage. So the Know-Nothing ignorance of past decades lives on. Is it surprising that the orangutan-haired populist-demagogue has been praised by ex-Klansman David Duke and by at least one neo-Nazi website?
The other article, by Timothy Egan (Aug. 28) in the New York Times, was a revealing contrast between Trump and the ultimate anti-Trump: Pope Francis, the humble celebrity soon to visit this country. Egan quotes Trump: "Show me someone without an ego, and I'll show you a loser." So I suppose if he meets the pope in New York, Trump, who values winners, will see the pontiff, with his echoes of St. Francis of Assisi, as the ultimate loser. What a sad spectacle.