By Lee A. Daniels
Donald Trump, the blowhard mogul masquerading as presidential candidate, has once again discovered the problem with trying to be a demagogue in a democracy: It’s the risk of “going too far.”
Sometimes that means merely being made to look foolish – as when President Obama early in the 2012 presidential election season deftly punctured Trump’s trying to play the conservatives’ racist “Birther” game.
However, at other times it means being exposed as a vindictive bully whose fragile ego provokes a reflexive lashing out at any and all critics. That’s the muddy road Trump’s been splashing down since he punctuated announcing his candidacy last month with a vile slur against undocumented Mexican immigrants, Hispanic-Americans and citizens of Mexico alike, and followed it this month by attacking in personal terms two GOP veteran Senators, John McCain, of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, who had sharply criticized his antics.
Trump’s astonishing behavior – in declaring that McCain, who endured years of brutality in a North Vietnamese prison during the 1960s’ war in Southeast Asia, was “not a war hero,” and then days later publicly revealing Graham’s mobile phone number and urging his supporters to call him – wasn’t just “unpresidential.” It wasn’t even “adult.” Nor was it smart politically – one reason being his juvenile antics revived questions about the five deferments he got to avoid military service during the Vietnam War years. (Graham also is a military veteran.)
Moreover, Republican officials couldn’t have been happy that numerous analysts quickly noted the strong whiff of hypocrisy pervading their outrage at Trump’s insulting McCain – given the concerted “not-a-war-hero” “swift-boating” campaign the GOP launched against John Kerry during the Massachusetts Democrat’s 2004 presidential run.
But Trump’s bully-boy behavior also revealed something far more worrisome than just his boundless ego and inability to counter in a sophisticated fashion the criticism, whether warranted or not, any presidential contender gets. That is that it perfectly reflects what’s become the foundation of Republican Party politics at the local, state and national levels: the use of cruelty as a political weapon.
Consider some of the landmarks of Republican Party politics during the Obama years:
From shutdowns of the federal government that deprived government workers of wages and citizens of needed services; to the imposition of unnecessary and draconian rules on economically-distressed citizens needing food stamps and other forms of government assistance; to a continuing pathological obsession with controlling women that’s only partially obscured by sanctimonious anti-abortion rhetoric; to their denigration of public–sector workers and their unions, the GOP’s domestic program has grounded itself in stoking a cruelty-over-compassion attitude about government’s relationship toward those not included in its “tent” of “Real Americans.”
Of course, the use of cruelty as a political weapon has been the GOP’s stock-in-trade since the late1960s when President Richard Nixon replaced the overtly racist lexicon of the defeated Southern segregationist wing of the Democratic Party with a Southern Strategy based on racially- coded appeals to Whites. In the 1980s the Reagan political machine re-christened that approach as “wedge politics” and used it to over time largely erase any allegiance within the Party to responsible bipartisan cooperation with Democrats. Instead, they stoked in its increasingly Whites-only base the demand for a rigid adherence to reactionary politics that Obama’s electoral and policy successes have intensified even more.
Ironically, the GOP’s surrender to extremist politics quickly provoked an ongoing internal power struggle between its establishment politicos and insurgents that has resulted in a string of successful and unsuccessful primary challenges to several GOP Senators and Representatives the radical right deemed not conservative – that is, cruel – enough. Those challenges, which taken together have no parallel within the Democratic Party, underscore the fierce authoritarian attitudes of the GOP Base – its need to feel it’s dominating others. No one currently better expresses that mentality than Trump.
One might be tempted to just enjoy the disruption Trump has brought to the GOP’s presidential primary doorstep for the second consecutive time. Except it suggests the continuation of a particularly egregious reality:
Just when the economic and social viability of much of “the 99 percent” of ordinary Americans – from the very poor to a significant portion of those who earn middle-income wages – threatened by the combination of numerous technological developments and global economic forces, one of the nation’s two major parties remains committed to cruelty as a foundation for governing.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com.