Another week, another series of Trump victories, and another series of odd comments from establishment politicians.
Your typical establishment politicians are disappointing in a number of ways. They often talk of compromises and big plans, ideas, or changes that will make all of our lives better while getting money from donors who set political agendas along with non-elected lobbyists.
In light of the failures of many politicians, U.S. voters are largely unsatisfied with both political parties. This has led to "populist" strains on both left and right, often interpreted narrowly as arising from dissatisfactions with the status quo. I believe there is more to these dissatisfactions. People are seeking individuals who "speak their mind" (mostly for the wrong reasons).
I want to talk here in particular about the unnerving rise of the political right form of "populism", which is currently characterized by Donald Trump and his fervent supporters.
Trump has used the fears and anger of many people to become the candidate to beat, to the worry of establishment politicians. He has fanned and manipulated his crowds by playing the victim, the resolute winner, and the epitome of American wealth and success all at once.
At this point, how will the establishment right unseat him? Some suggest an open Republican convention in July. Then, the decision of many voters will be questioned by a small part of the GOP, while Trump has already suggested that there might be riots. He is truly a master at manipulation.
Amidst this almost cultic rise, many have compared Trump and his ascent to Nazi Germany. Sure, Trump has presented himself as a one-man authority figure with a knack for creating his own version of the truth. He also has a voter base willing to resort to violence and has only given a limited insight into how he will "Make America Great Again". Yet, does he really have that much in common with a genocidal lunatic who willfully attempted to erase an entire people? Hopefully we will never have to answer that question.
Instead, our human history can shed light on how politicians, particularly those with a tenuous relationship with the truth and a flair for the dramatic, manipulate the wider masses. These individuals pushed the weaknesses and fears of others and turned them into an opportunity for themselves to access the highest forms of power.
Let me use Julius Caesar as a loose comparative example (appropriate as we have observed the Ides of March), while keeping in mind that he was actually an able military tactician and leader, an eloquent speaker, and an experienced politician. Trump obviously lacks on several fronts here, but the relationship between these two individuals and the wider populace were/are astoundingly brilliant.
Caesar was a political careerist in the first century BC. He used his name, family wealth, and persona to project a sense of self-importance and success. We know of various instances where he went out of his way to inflame the public. For instance, he used his aunt's funeral to praise her while also proclaiming himself as a descendant of the fourth King of Rome and the goddess Venus. Caesar used his military experience and intermittent returns to politics to strengthen himself in the public limelight, always gaining more notoriety. However, one of his most brilliant exploits was a marriage for the ages. He married the daughter of a well-known general and politician (Quintus Pompey) who was also the granddaughter of Sulla, a conflicting statesman who took over Rome with force as a dictator.
Caesar's intermittent political growth is significant to those who study the past, but let us take a look at events that he manipulated to widen his popularity with the people. When Pompey's triumphant return from wars in the eastern Mediterranean was seen as a possible turn to dictatorships, Caesar stoked the popular sentiment up to the point of threatened violence.
Similarly, when Caesar used a military opportunity as an excuse to avoid his debt of over twenty million denarii, he strengthened his image in Rome as a victor. Later he used his political position to weaken his opponents by claiming that they were hiding behind their legislative loopholes, demanding that debates and procedures were released to the public for the first time in Rome.
After many victories, conquests, and plunders across Europe, Caesar's gains had taken a toll on the pockets of the rich in Rome. They chose to prosecute Caesar, leading him to cross the Rubicon. This crossing into Italy with an army behind him was a serious affront. Despite that the establishment had pushed Caesar through procedures and threats of exile, he used the love of the people and his veteran army to eventually become an even stronger titan. His undoing was his disenfranchisement of the Roman nobility. Senators, from noble stock, eventually accosted Julius Caesar on the Senate floor and murdered him; a typical move in antiquity.
How does Caesar relate to Donald Trump? Well, they both use the poor (or poorly educated in modern cases) to forward their own agenda. They have exploited their name and wealth. They also rocked entrenched establishment politicians and patrons. Their careers have been propelled upwards through an exploitation of others. Their names are a brand synonymous with "success" (and sometimes steaks and failed airlines) which blinds their loyal supporters from their other weaknesses.
Such individuals did not truly "speak their mind". Instead, they used public sentiment to their benefit.
Perhaps, our biggest fault is that Trump was not taken seriously for too long. Until recently, there has been a puzzling lack of emphasis regarding his rise as a demagogue, someone who willfully foments his crowds but then backs away from responsibility when prodded. On the other hand, we should also keep in mind that the establishment right is only voicing their dissent because they have lost control of the fates of their party.
Instead, the people should be the ones who begin to recognize and refute the many signs of blatant manipulation that characterize this election cycle.