If today we had just inaugurated one of the Republican presidential aspirants other than Donald Trump, we would still be facing the dour prospects of right-wing ossification on the Supreme Court, the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, an EPA about to be dismantled, US withdrawal from efforts to avert climate disruption, further enrichment of the top one percent through drastic tax cuts and a host of other changes guided by the illusion that unregulated markets magically make the world a better place.
Donald Trump adds a disturbingly distinctive quality to these regressive movements, something I found myself blurting out once when listening to him on TV during the Republican primaries. “He’s a demagogue!” I declared to my wife. I don’t remember exactly what he was saying at that moment but I’m sure it had to have been one of the many instances when he was pulling punches at a time when any civil citizen would be going on the attack. Maybe it was the time he tried to distance himself from David Duke, claiming he didn’t know who Duke was (something incredible for an even casual observer of American politics and clearly a lie by Trump who had had no problem speaking publicly about Duke before that). The demagogic element in such behavior lay in Trump’s coldly calculated decision not to upset a racist mob element in his constituency, not to risk losing the votes of good people whose latent bigotry could be stirred to the surface by a power-hungry leader willing to build and exploit such a constituency. It is the kind of behavior that caused Duke to encourage Trump to say whatever he had to in order to get elected, the kind of behavior that won him the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.
At that time, early in the primaries, one edition of the New Yorker had a cover with a balloon, Trump’s face imprinted on it, rising into the ether. The clear implication was that the balloon was about to burst. That’s what so many of us took as a foregone conclusion. Surely, we thought, the primary process of debates and media scrutiny would expel such a candidate. With the system’s failure on that count, we moved on to the next, bigger test of our system. Would the intense presidential election process turn back such a candidate? Now, today, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, with our system also having failed on that count, we face the ultimate, three-strikes-and-you’re-out test of whatever strains of democracy remain in our society. Can our system through checks and balances, through an accountable Congress, through a democratic judiciary, through questioning media coverage, through public pressure assure that the Oval Office does not become a vehicle for demagoguery? Will the system tame Trump? These are open questions. It is too early to conclude that a demagogue is in power. But now is a time for vigilance of the highest order.