Politics & Policy

On Donald Trump and Demagoguery

Editor’s Note: The following excerpts are drawn from an essay by William F. Buckley Jr. that appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of Cigar Aficionado

Many people are inflamed by the rampant demagoguery in the present scene. Demagoguery — demagogy — comes in two modes. Most conspicuous is that of the candidate who promises the voters what are best described as Nice Things. Why not health care for the uninsured? Or for children? Why not cheaper drugs? Free child delivery? (Free funerals?) Sharpshooters tracking down demagogy were out there waiting last summer, eyes trained, when Bill Bradley arrived in Iowa. Would he do it? Would he advocate an end to the subsidy of ethanol? Ethanol is the program, excogitated during the Carter Administration, which sought to augment the staying power of a gallon of gasoline by an infusion of ethanol. What happened is that the price of oil went down, and the potential economic value of an ethanol additive turned out to be less than the cost of producing ethanol, and that was many moons ago. . . .

What about the aspirant who has a private vision to offer to the public and has the means, personal or contrived, to finance a campaign? In some cases, the vision isn’t merely a program to be adopted. It is a program that includes the visionary’s serving as President. Look for the narcissist. The most obvious target in today’s lineup is, of course, Donald Trump. When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America. But whatever the depths of self-enchantment, the demagogue has to say something. So what does Trump say? That he is a successful businessman and that that is what America needs in the Oval Office. There is some plausibility in this, though not much. The greatest deeds of American Presidents — midwifing the new republic; freeing the slaves; harnessing the energies and vision needed to win the Cold War — had little to do with a bottom line.

So what else can Trump offer us? Well to begin with, a self-financed campaign. Does it follow that all who finance their own campaigns are narcissists? At this writing Steve Forbes has spent $63 million in pursuit of the Republican nomination. Forbes is an evangelist, not an exhibitionist. In his long and sober private career, Steve Forbes never bought a casino, and if he had done so, he would not have called it Forbes’s Funhouse. His motivations are discernibly selfless. . . .

There are moments of deep gloom during the primary season. The candidates are immediately approached after a public event to be told whether what they just finished saying added or subtracted from their probable standing in the polls. And the American voter who wants to see a sign of life and of pride in the participants in our expensive and exhausting democratic obstacle course wonder, sometimes with a sense of desperation, whether what we’re seeing is new. Or, are we looking at merely this season’s reenactment of a ritual that began when Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were quarreling before their conclusive encounter at Weehawken?

There is always rivalry, and there is always a search for means of exploiting the means of advancing one’s own position. In other ages, one paid court to the king. Now we pay court to the people. In the final analysis, just as the king might look down with terminal disdain upon a courtier whose hypocrisy repelled him, so we have no substitute for relying on the voter to exercise a quiet veto when it becomes more necessary to discourage cynical demagogy, than to advance free health for the kids. That can come later, in another venue; the resistance to a corrupting demagogy should take first priority.

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