Donald Trump was in Iowa this weekend, enriching the soil of my ancestral homeland with speeches at Urbandale High School and the state fairgrounds. His remarks at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Forum included a reference to a kerfuffle last Thursday, when one of his supporters declared President Obama a Muslim not born in America and Trump did not correct him. It eerily resembled one of the most dignified moments of John McCain’s career, except for the dignity part. “Remember the famous day when John McCain just ripped that microphone out of the woman’s hands?” Trump told the Faith and Freedom Forum, arguing he handled the scenario much better. “Does anybody really think that’s harsh?” The crowd applauded. Grim assessment after the jump.
Trump told the crowd that to correct his supporter’s wrong claim about Obama’s religion and birthplace would have violated the man’s freedom of speech. That’s not how freedom of speech works, of course. A candidate saying that what his supporter said was factually incorrect would not be censorship; it would be discourse. As an epithet for the First Amendment, “freedom of speech” refers to the unconstitutionality of governments preventing citizens from expressing ideas, not one person saying another person is wrong.
It’s alarming to see a front-runner for president use the same definition of “freedom of speech” people use in the comments section of the Des Moines Register. But of course Trump does not believe that contradicting others violates their freedom of speech. He regularly interrupts people to dismiss their ideas as stupid. What Trump essentially told the audience at the Faith and Freedom Forum on Saturday was that he would not correct their wrong ideas.
That right there is the operating principle of a demagogue. A leader who suspected his supporters had embraced a wrong idea would try to lead them away from it, if not by scolding them then at least by advancing a right idea in its place. Trump’s candidacy is not about leading people. It’s ostensibly about being smarter than everybody else, but really it’s about assuring low-information voters they’re smart by parroting what they already believe.
It’s not exactly a policy-driven campaign. But it isn’t a personality-driven campaign, either, even though the whole thing centers on one celebrity’s brash persona.1 Trump’s campaign is personality-supported: its operating principle is to validate the ideas of the angriest, least sophisticated bloc of the Republican Party with the endorsement of a billionaire. Its slogan might as well be “a rich person could believe this shit, too.”
That’s fun for people who have spent their whole lives marveling at how stupid experts are, but it’s not leadership. It’s pandering. It’s demagoguery. It’s all the abuses to which democracy is especially prone, and it’s kind of thrilling to watch it happen. It’s probably not good, though.