The Washington Spectator arrives via my snail-mail (many thanks to Gerald Stinson!), so I can’t link to the article, but the most recent version contained a fascinating essay by one Patricia Roberts-Miller, who is a Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin.
She begins by acknowledging a recurring question posed by most sane Americans: why in the world hasn’t Trump’s obvious incompetence, constant lying and childish language and behavior undercut his standing with his base?
One answer to that question–an answer that research continues to confirm–is that the base shares his racism/White nationalism, and for his base, that animus outweighs everything else. But Roberts-Miller provides a different–albeit not inconsistent–analysis, involving the language of demagoguery.
She cites to a rhetoric scholar who analyzed Hitler’s use of language and characterized it as a “relentless repetition” of the “bastardization of religious thought.” The “religious ways of thinking” that lent themselves to bastardization included identification of a common enemy, allied with scapegoating and projection.
Demagoguery, she points out, “displaces policy argumentation with praise of “us” and condemnation of “them.”
Roberts-Miller also says we should not be surprised by Evangelical Christian support for Trump, since conservative Christian Germans overwhelmingly supported Hitler and conservative Christian Americans previously supported slavery, segregation and lynching.
Although she takes care to say that Trump isn’t Hitler, she admits the parallels are troubling. Hitler railed against a socialist Parliament, internationalism (what we would call globalism), the presence of aliens, rampant immigration, liberalism and the liberal media (which he claimed was “stabbing him in the back”).
And of course, he promised to “make Germany great again.”
Roberts-Miller says that Trump’s use of demagogic rhetoric is less important than the fact that his “rise to power was fueled by a demagoguery that reflected the racist, xenophobic, misogynist and authoritarian values” of today’s iteration of the GOP. As she notes, Trump didn’t bother with dog whistles; he just came right out and said shocking things–“and the GOP media machine didn’t condemn him for it. They justified it, promoted it, and repeated it.”
So here’s where we are in today’s America. In a country and an era where the structures of democracy no longer work, we are governed–thanks to vote suppression, gerrymandering, and the current operation of the Electoral College–by a minority of our fellow citizens who subscribe to a set of pernicious beliefs and act out of a set of visceral resentments that are inimical both to America’s founding values and to human rights. Rather than finding Trump’s inarticulate use of language bizarre and repulsive, his language actually speaks to them. It reinforces their sense of grievance and their belief in their own victimization.
We’re getting a master class in demagoguery.