Many supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump are drawn to him because they perceive him as someone who speaks the truth. Fed up with politicians subdued by the Washington establishment or by “political correctness,” they see Trump’s bluntness and seeming pragmatic attitude as refreshing. But Trump is no truth-teller. He is a demagogue in the classical Greek sense—a politician who appeals to people’s prejudices and impatience with democratic deliberation. He does not speak the truth, but rather what a segment of the electorate wants to hear, flattery that simultaneously affirms both their perceived greatness and their victimhood.
That Trump is no straight-talker should have been obvious to anyone during the first Republican debate on August 6. At the beginning of the debate Trump was asked if he could pledge not to run as a third party candidate if he failed to receive the Republican nomination, and he responded:
I cannot say. I have to respect the person that, if it’s not me, the person that wins, if I do win, and I’m leading by quite a bit, that’s what I want to do. I can totally make that pledge. If I’m the nominee, I will pledge I will not run as an independent. But — and I am discussing it with everybody, but I’m, you know, talking about a lot of leverage. We want to win, and we will win. But I want to win as the Republican. I want to run as the Republican nominee.
One can almost imagine Trump crossing his fingers behind his back. Later in the debate, he was asked to justify his earlier claim—made when he announced his candidacy— that the Mexican government is intentionally sending criminals across the border with the U.S. Instead of answering, Trump first accused the media of distorting what he said (Jon Stewart, in his own way, exposed the absurdity of this claim long before the debate), then avoided answering the question. Finally, after insistent prodding from Chris Wallace, he claimed that Border Patrol agents allegedly “say this is what’s happening,” but without details or evidence. Unfortunately, the Fox News moderators failed to follow up and ask him to justify his implied suggestion, completely false, that most undocumented immigrants are criminals, or even disproportionately so.
At a press conference in Dubuque, Iowa, Univision journalist Jorge Ramos (after earlier having been temporarily thrown out) asked Trump to explain his proposal to deport the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Trump again dodged the question, referring to alleged incidents of undocumented immigrants involved in crime, failing to explain what that had to do with millions of other undocumented immigrants he was now willing to concede are “good people.”
Trump’s rhetoric on immigration clearly demonstrates his demagogic modus operandi. He appeals to the prejudice linking immigrants and ethnic minorities to crime—stoked by sensationalized yet anecdotal stories like the shooting of Kathryn Steinle—which is, it bears repeating, completely false. When pressed for facts or policy details, he dances around the issue, but is still praised by his supporters as a straight-talker for his blunt approach.
This pattern is not limited to immigration. In his campaign speech following the press conference in Dubuque, Trump spoke about the U.S.’s economic relationship with China and Japan. On the one hand, he claimed that the Chinese and Japanese “have our jobs” and that as president he would “bring back the jobs.” Mere seconds later, however, he lamented the U.S. trade deficit resulting from the large quantity of goods we import from Asia, and vowed to make the U.S. a net exporter. What he didn’t explain was how, after we have taken back “our” jobs, the now jobless Chinese and Japanese will afford our exports. Nor did he explain how any of this would be possible given his expressed love for free trade. Again we see the appeal to the prejudicial fear that our problems are caused by others paired with a nearly nonsensical policy solution woefully short on details.
Trump appeals to voters not because he speaks the truth but because he allows them to feel like victims. Their problems can be entirely explained by others, whether they be immigrants, ethnic minorities, foreigners, or the hapless politicians who do not protect us from them. Trump’s path was already marked out by Sarah Palin’s white middle class “politics of victimization” and even earlier by Pat Buchanan in the 1990s. Yet while his supporters feel like victims, Trump also assures them that they would be prosperous and successful because of their innate goodness, if only it were not for the insidious others. His campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!” makes this clear.
Another characteristic of Trump’s message is its personalism, by which I mean his repeated insistence that he will succeed as president almost entirely through his own personal charm and vision. This personalism verges on narcissism. In the first debate Trump claimed that illegal immigration “was not a subject that was on anybody’s mind until I brought it up at my announcement,” never mind that he was sharing the stage with Marco Rubio, one of the architects of last year’s comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Trump’s personalism also demonstrates magical thinking. He will convince the Mexican government to build a border wall. He will bring back American jobs simply by negotiating with the Chinese. He will create jobs and balance the budget by . . . who knows? Trump’s personalism frees him from worrying about the gritty details of policymaking. Conversely, he repeatedly accuses other politicians of being “stupid,” blaming our lack of definitive solutions to social problems on their stupidity. Of course, this rhetoric allows his supporters to feel they are “in the know” while nevertheless victims. More importantly, it allows people to ignore the complexity of the problems we face, that important issues always involve trade-offs and compromises, and that democratic politics always involves stitching together constituencies with competing interests. In other words, it embodies an impatience with democracy.
Trump did not invent this personalist style of politics. After all, it was then-candidate Barack Obama who promised that his nomination “was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.” While for Obama this personalism has shown up in moments of rhetorical excess, however, for Trump it appears to be the substance of the message.
Trying to make sense of the Trump phenomenon, some have compared him to the European far right. While there is a lot of truth in this comparison—they share Trump’s nationalism, xenophobia, the focus on economic insecurity—I think a more apt comparison is with Latin American populism, ironically so given Trump’s views on Latin American migration. Whereas the European far right has tended to organize around parties mobilized by ideology, Latin American populism has eschewed party politics and instead organized political movements around a particular leader. It therefore demonstrated the same personalism and magical thinking characteristic of Trump’s campaign. For example, the Chilean populist General Carlos Ibáñez declared on the campaign trail in 1952:
Since I am not accustomed to promising that which I cannot fulfill, I will not deceive the country. I solemnly declare that I will stop this inflation. I will be able to do it because it is my will.
Trump’s policies demonstrate the same lack of detail and trust in his personal powers.
Latin American populists were also almost invariably men of action—Ibáñez and Argentina’s Juan Perón were military officers, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori was an engineer—political outsiders who could get the job done. Trump appeals to the same mystique; he refers to himself on the campaign trail as a “builder,” and his supporters see his success as a capitalist as easily translating into political results. Again we see the same distrust of politicians and the give and take of democratic politics, which appears corrupt and irresolute.
The Latin American populists had their widest appeal in a time of dislocation, when millions of Latin Americans were leaving the countryside in search of greater opportunities in the city. The traditional institutions and elites of Latin American society were weakening but nothing yet had arisen to take their place, and the populists offered a seemingly attractive solution to people’s daily struggles. We live in our own time of dislocation, not from urbanization but from globalization. So it is no surprise that Trump’s most provocative statements have centered on issues like immigration, foreign trade, and jobs.
In modern times the Catholic Church has shown an occasional weak spot for populism; the church has often shown a distaste for the give and take of democratic politics, and populist leaders at times appeared as an attractive alternative. In the United States, however, we also have a long tradition of Catholic politicians skilled in knitting together diverse coalitions and successfully managing political trade-offs. I don’t think that we need fear that Catholic voters will be drawn to Trump in significant numbers. I am more concerned that Catholics be able to demonstrate an alternative form of politics, one that takes seriously democratic give and take without succumbing to cynicism and the alienation of the people from the political process. We need a politics that takes seriously the dislocation so many experience as a result of globalization, that recognizes the complexity of the issues we face while fostering solidarity rather than xenophobia, nationalism, and victimhood.