Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
In Latin America, they would call him a caudillo. The term literally means “man on horseback,” and it’s a product of the 19th century. People in the newly independent countries of central and south America who were trying to put together democratic governments had to deal with the threat that some general or other would either sweep out the government and stage a coup d’état or appeal to a large number of people, convince them that representative government was unworkable, and take over in a revolution. The military leaders who took power that way came to be called caudillos — since 19th century generals usually did ride into battle on horses as a symbol of their leadership authority — and the whole system of dictatorship they embodied became known as caudillismo.
The 20th century was full of caudillos, and the plague of dictatorship they represented spread far beyond Latin America into countries long considered too civilized to succumb to it. Sometimes the caudillos were just thugs (like Saddam Hussein), but sometimes they identified themselves with particular ideologies. On the Left there were Lenin in Russia in 1917, Mao in China in 1949, Kim Il Sung in North Korea after World War II, Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1959 and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1999. On the Right there were Mussolini in Italy in 1922, Hitler in Germany in 1933 and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973. Some of the caudillos, like Juan Perón in Argentina in 1945 and 1972 and Muammar al-Quaddafi in Libya in 1979, invented their own ideologies from a smorgasbord of Left and Right ideas.
But wherever the caudillos ruled, and what excuses they put forward as justification for their dictatorial rule, they had one thing in common. They all took power in countries that were heavily divided politically, in which the established democratic parties had essentially deadlocked and the government was barely functioning. And whatever their claimed ideology, they basically presented the same appeal: they would sweep out the established politicians, take over and be men of action who could get things done. They also generally offered convenient scapegoats on which they blamed all their countries’ problems. The Leftist caudillos blamed property owners, corporations (including outside investors) and rich people in general, while the Rightist ones usually made their scapegoats racial instead of economic. But all said that their country had ceased to be one its citizens could be proud of, and they offered themselves as the saviors who could “Make ________ Great Again.”
Until August 20, 2015 I wasn’t thinking of Donald Trump as a potential American caudillo. I had pretty much bought into the conventional wisdom that he was a politically inexperienced blowhard who would self-destruct under the weight of his sheer outrageousness and overweening pride. I was sure that sooner or later the Republican primary voters who have given Trump such a strong lead — though still only about 25 percent of a pretty small sliver of the total American electorate — would come to their senses, decide they’d made their point and coalesce around someone more “electable” in normal political terms. Then I watched Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN August 20, and Rachel Maddow’s on MSNBC just after it, and all they could talk about was the polls that showed Trump actually broadening his lead after gaffe after gaffe that would have sunk a more ordinary politician.
Trump zoomed to the top of the crowded Republican Presidential field when he said that Mexico was sending murderers and rapists to this country and therefore we had to stop “illegal” immigration. Trump attacked John McCain’s military record and snottily said he preferred war heroes who hadn’t got captured — and his poll numbers went up. Trump responded to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s “gotcha” question on the first Republican Presidential debate, calling him on his record of making openly sexist and blatantly sexual slurs about women, with an openly sexist and blatantly sexual slur about her. Not only did his poll numbers go up again, he had an even greater margin of support among Republican women than Republican men. What’s more, even the dwindling numbers of Republican voters who still support someone else as their first choice for the nomination overwhelmingly name Trump as their second choice — and the actual number two candidate in the most recent polls is Ben Carson, an African-American and a former doctor who, like Trump, has never held elective office and is therefore not considered part of “the system.”
What I gathered from those polls, and from the enthusiasm that both Trump and his Democratic opposite number, Bernie Sanders, are stirring up in their followers — Trump and Sanders have both had to move their rallies to bigger venues because the places they booked originally haven’t been big enough to contain the crowds — is that a lot of Americans have given up on “democracy” as they’ve experienced it in the last quarter-century. They’ve seen their politicians, whatever their party label, become so dependent on campaign donations from rich people that the only policies that get seriously considered are ones that make the rich richer and the rest of us poorer. They’ve seen their home values destroyed by a devastating recession, their jobs swept away by corporate restructurings and “outsourcing” to foreign countries, and in the seven years since 2008 the economy go through a so-called “recovery” whose benefits have gone almost exclusively to the top 1 percent of Americans while everyone else is either not working, working well below their potential, or scared shitless every day that their job will be taken over by a Mexican, a Chinese, or a computer.
They’ve given up on their country’s existing government’s ability to protect themselves against threats from abroad. They can’t help but wonder why, despite the U.S. maintaining a bigger military than the next 25 countries in the world combined (and spending that much more on it, too), we’re getting pushed around in the world by Russia — the country we supposedly won the Cold War from — Iran, China and North Korea. They’re perplexed that after all the U.S. servicemembers who were killed in Iraq and all the blood and treasure that was spent there, Iraq is now the home base of the murderous medievalist thugs of Islamic State. And if they think about it at all, they’re probably wondering why all the pro-corporate “free trade” agreements pushed through by presidents of both major parties only make it easier for businesses to shift jobs overseas and shaft American workers.
What the people who’ve underestimated Trump until now (including me) haven’t realized is just how far the U.S. is on the path towards the people losing faith in the entire idea of “democracy” and desperately seeking a caudillo who can rule with an iron hand and make it all better overnight. When anybody bothers to ask the people who are supporting Donald Trump why — as Republican pollster Frank Luntz did in a focus-group meeting in Alexandria, Virginia August 24 — they get quotes from Paddy Chayevsky’s famous line from the movie Network: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” They get brickbats aimed equally at President Obama — whom they don’t believe actually likes the U.S. — and the Republican-dominated Congress, which they call “useless,” “irrelevant,” “lame” and a few other epithets that can’t be printed in a mainstream U.S. newspaper.
One woman at Luntz’s focus group on Trump said of mainstream politicians, “It’s been years and years of feeling like you’ve been lied to. Nothing getting better; everything, across the board, getting worse.” Another attendee, a middle-aged man, said, “We grew up in an America that was the leader of the world. Today, we’re quickly becoming a Third World [country]. … As a power, [Russian president Vladimir] Putin slaps us around like we’re Tahiti. Nobody respects the United States as an authority on anything.”
Asked what they like about Trump, Luntz’s focus-group participants talk about two things: his success in the private sector and his willingness to say things mainstream politicians consider too in-your-face or electorally toxic. “There’s something about Trump,” said one woman in Luntz’s group. “He looks you in the face. He doesn’t care what you think of him.” Another woman said, “He’s successful in this country just like we want to be.” She added that she didn’t mind his boasting because “he’s proud of his success,” which she felt Mitt Romney hadn’t been. “I like the confidence,” a third woman said. “It makes me feel confident.”
Luntz came away from the meeting he’d organized shaken at the depth, scope, power and seeming unshakability of Trump’s support. “Nothing disqualifies Trump,” he said. Though Luntz had worked for the 1992 independent Presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, who like Trump had come out of virtually nowhere, shaken up the race and ultimately got 19 percent of the vote, better than any third-party Presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Luntz said the Trump phenomenon was “stronger … far more intense” than Perot.
The Cult of the CEO
In another country, or maybe even another historical era in the U.S., the broad dissatisfaction with the way things are going, and in particular with an economy that serves only the rich and a foreign policy that has left us looking weak to the rest of the world, might have inspired large numbers of people to turn Left. But the American Left has done such a good job in the last 50 years of shrinking both its numbers and its influence to total irrelevance, while the Right has come back from seemingly crushing defeats to grow its electoral and ideological hegemony, that it’s not at all surprising that the man millions of people are turning to as their political savior is presenting himself as a Right-winger who blames “illegals” for virtually all his nation’s problems in much the same reflexive fashion Hitler blamed everything wrong with his country on “the Jews.”
I don’t want to suggest that Trump’s politics are comparable to Hitler’s, but it’s indicative of how he’s using undocumented immigrants as an undifferentiated scapegoat that Trump even said the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore over police killings of African-Americans were the fault of “illegals” and that he’d end such civil disturbances by deporting their practitioners. “When you look at Baltimore, when you look at Chicago, and Ferguson, a lot of these areas, you know, a lot of these gang members are illegal immigrants,” Trump told a talk-radio host in Mobile, Alabama August 14. “They’re gonna be gone. We’re gonna get them out so fast, out of this country. So fast.”
If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, it won’t be the first time the GOP has tried to reclaim the White House by putting up a corporate CEO with no political experience. It happened in 1940, when the Republicans saw their hopes of ending Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, with its domestic New Deal and its aggressive challenge to fascism abroad, in industrialist Wendell Willkie. Had the 22nd Amendment been in effect in 1940, Willkie could well have won the election, especially if there’d been a typical fratricidal war for the Democratic nomination between FDR’s conservative vice-president, John Nance Garner of Texas, and the progressive FDR actually wanted to be his successor, agriculture secretary Henry Wallace. But with FDR eligible to run for a third term and many Americans still associating CEO’s in general with the business practices that had sunk the American economy a decade earlier, Roosevelt beat Willkie — not by as much as he’d beat Herbert Hoover in 1932 or Alf Landon in 1936, but enough to win comfortably.
Since 1940, there has been a sea change not only in the way Americans view their government and political system, but the way they feel about businessmen. The original caudillos were military leaders — indeed, that’s where the term came from — but with the demise of the draft, which has led most Americans to think of the military as something “other” people do, military experience has virtually faded completely from the list of virtues Americans look for in their prospective leaders. The last U.S. President who was a general was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who left office in 1961, and the last President who served in the military at all was George H. W. Bush, who left office in 1993.
Instead, thanks to a highly successful propaganda campaign waged by corporate America and the politicians and academics they funded, the cult of the general has given way to the cult of the CEO. The Republican Party is now totally governed by a libertarian ideology that holds that the people who run companies succeed because they’re better, more capable humans than anyone else, and therefore they ought to have the right to run things as they please and any attempts to tax them to help those below them on the socioeconomic scale are not only bad policy but downright immoral. This ideology was expressed in the popular novels of Ayn Rand, whose most important book, Atlas Shrugged (1957), is generally named by Republican activists as the second most significant work of political philosophy ever written (next to the Bible).
At the end of the 19th century, many progressive reformers — Republicans as well as Democrats and independents — believed that private ownership of the financial system, the energy industry and basic utilities like gas, electric, water and public transit was inherently oppressive. Throughout the country so-called Municipal Ownership Leagues were formed to buy out the private owners and make the big utilities publicly owned and therefore more responsive to the people. Even people who stopped short of calling for public ownership still felt the corporations ought to be regulated, and anti-trust laws should be enforced to keep companies from getting so big that they monopolized whole industries and got so rich they used their fortunes to buy control over the political system and shield themselves from public accountability. The basic attitude of the progressives of that era was summed up by activist attorney and, later, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, when he said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
But that view, along with the government regulations, anti-trust laws and other attempts to curb corporate power — including protecting the right of workers to form labor unions — has become, as George W. Bush’s attorney John Woo said about the Geneva Conventions, “obsolete and quaint.” As the governments in the Soviet Union, China and the other countries that claimed to be putting the philosophies of socialism and communism into practice turned into oppressive tyrannies, the American Right was able to argue that this proved that any controls on corporate power, any government interference in the economy, would generate similarly tyrannical results. As memories of the Great Depression faded, corporate CEO’s themselves and their hired propagandists were able to create the cult of the CEO. Self-glorifying autobiographies by people like Trump, Lee Iacocca and General Electric CEO Jack Welch (who became known as “Neutron Jack” because one of his key strategies for building up his company’s stock value was firing large numbers of workers) became best-sellers.
Today the idea that “the private sector” is inherently more “efficient” than the public sector is so widespread in the U.S. that it is taken as an article of faith. Given the opportunity to vote on whether public services should be offered to the private sector, most American electorates overwhelmingly endorse the idea — even though the only ways a private company can deliver a service more cheaply than the government, and turn a profit doing so, is either to cut the wages of the workers or lower the quality of the service, and in real-world privatizations they usually do both. The cult of “the private sector” has reached such dimensions that even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the government agency charged with administering public radio and TV in the U.S., calls itself “a private corporation funded by the American people.”
So with the adulation of CEO’s having reached cult-like status, and with the myth of the super-CEO utterly embraced even by many Americans who have personally suffered from it in lost jobs, lost homes, work-related injuries, environmental devastation and higher taxes, it’s almost inevitable that in a time of public disgust at the way the U.S. is being governed, many Americans are willing to put the presidency in the hands of a CEO and say, “Here. Clean house. Do what you have to do.” They were almost ready to do that in 1992, when H. Ross Perot ran and came a lot closer to being elected President than most people realize. If it hadn’t been for his spectacular psychological meltdown in public, which led him first to withdraw from the race (after he’d spent millions just to get on the ballot in all 50 states) and then to re-enter it, Perot might well have carried enough states to squeeze out an electoral victory in a close three-way race.
And it’s looking more and more like large numbers of Americans are disgusted enough with their so-called “democracy” that they’re willing to see their salvation in Donald Trump. His support so far cuts across all the so-called divisions within the Republican party. Though he hasn’t really talked much about the “social issues” that motivate evangelical Christians and the religious Right in general, and, as Frank Bruni pointed out in an August 25 New York Times column, Trump’s own life hardly makes him the poster child for religious-Right values (“If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America,” Bruni wrote, “I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed? Seems to work for Donald Trump”), he’s leading among Republican evangelicals just as much as he is among the rest of the party.
What’s more, Trump’s appeal extends beyond the Republican Party. Some of the participants in Frank Luntz’s focus group of Trump supporters had voted for Barack Obama. And while the Democratic insurgent, Bernie Sanders, could hardly be more different from Trump on the surface — a self-proclaimed “socialist” instead of a capitalist, a community organizer who eked out a victory in a close race for the mayoralty of Burlington, Vermont in 1981 and has held public office ever since, and someone who’s not only not rich himself but who proudly boasts that the average donation to his campaign is $35 — he’s making a similar appeal to voters disgusted with business as usual in Washington, D.C. and who want an alternative. Frankly, many voters attracted to Sanders in the Democratic primaries will have a hard time accepting Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or some other old-line pro-corporate politician as the ultimate nominee, and despite Trump’s business background and frankly racist platform on immigration, may vote for Trump just because they think this country needs a shake-up and they’ll see him as the man who can deliver it.
It could be that there may be something out there that will prick the Trump balloon, just as the bizarre scandal about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server for State Department business has metastasized and stripped her of the aura of “inevitable Democratic nominee” she once possessed. But more and more, it’s beginning to look like the normal rules of politics don’t apply to Donald Trump — just as the normal rules of business success haven’t applied to him in the career that got him the riches, name recognition and don’t-fuck-with-me reputation that are his principal assets as a politician. It may seem ironic that a country full of people on tenterhooks about how much longer their jobs will last would elect as President a man whose main public presence has been on a “reality” TV show in which he humiliates people and tells them, “You’re … FIRED!,” but when a country’s people feel that their so-called “democracy” has failed them, they’re fair game for a caudillo, a man who can ride in on horseback (or, in Trump’s case, on a state-of-the-art helicopter emblazoned with his name): a Lenin, a Hitler, a Mao … or a Trump.