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Secondo '16: Demagogue and populist

We live in a hypersensitive age of anxiety and fear. Everywhere we turn, we are reminded of threats and problems that are gradually clawing away at our sense of security. Crippling inequality, racial injustice and rampant gun violence, along with sluggish Main Street growth, gridlocked government and a broken immigration system, are plastered on rotation by media platforms and disseminated by pundits and politicians alike. Add in destabilizing proxy wars and surging global terrorism, plus fluxing financial markets, and there you have it: Overture to the 21st Century Breakdown.

Our nation is rattled, and the common man is adrift in a sea of instability. And coincidentally during the early stages of our nation’s ritual exchange of command, the men and women seeking control of the helm exacerbate the brewing storm of uncertainty.

One would think that an election cycle during a time of great concern would encourage a candidate to appear as a pacifying, powerful figure who quells public fear, unites a divided people and inspires renewed faith in our nation. Instead, we are further plagued by certain candidates who have chosen to capitalize on the political climate by means unseen since the turn of the last century. William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long and Joseph McCartney share one acrimonious label: demagogue. Meanwhile, the likes of Eugene Debs and George Wallace, who were historically less incendiary, have been assigned the more palatable but equally charged label of populist. Despite subtle categorical nuances, two leading candidates who might not win the general election have certainly joined these two groups as representatives of 21st century American demagoguery and populism: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

What more is there to say about the most colorful, disruptive, entertaining sideshow-turned-disconcerting-frontrunner presidential candidate of the modern political age that has not been said already? Trump is the ideal demagogue; he panders on the passions and prejudices of a fearful, ignorant populace and uses his braggadocio and blustering talk in order to seize power. To a significant percentage of Americans, our lethargic nation is diseased by immigrants, career politicians and lost jobs to China and can only be saved by a “smart” and “really rich” racist, misogynistic plutocrat. He is everything the common man is not, but he is venerated as the purported embodiment of what success and power can be.

Trump indulges the emotional sentiments of angry white politics and masterfully weaves artistry with vulgarity to create an irresistible image of a cult leader. His real talk of reality plays to the warped views of an embittered populace willing to embrace xenophobia or decry our Muslim-Kenyan pretender president in order to assign blame for America’s fall from grace. Trump is not the breath of fresh air needed to shake the system of talking-head leaders and ineffective government, but a poisonous gas of intoxicating hyperbole and reality distortion that intentionally keeps a house divided for the sake of manipulative control.

On the other end of the spectrum, minus the extreme rancor and rhetoric, is the socialist Vermont senator out to upend crony capitalism and ignite a political revolution against the privileged and powerful. He has assumed the progressive (what does that even mean anymore?) mantle in the quest to assail corporate America and the 1 percent for their economic gains and strip them of control through wealth distribution and industry oversight. His dowdy frankness and rejection of polished politics have turned him into the crazy-uncle cult figure hailed by frustrated collegiate liberals, ex-hippies and the “marginalized” white middle class.

Sanders scapegoats financially successful people and institutions as criminals responsible for inequality, playing to the scorned public’s demands for retribution after years of being sold a hoax economic recovery. He is not a fringe candidate, but a voice that stirs classist prejudices and socioeconomic hostilities to reawaken the populist grassroots agenda against the nation’s political and economic establishment and the stereotyped people that represent them.

There is a fine line between a populist crusader and a crazed demagogue. Traditionally, the former is a recognized leader of a concrete reform movement who needs the support of followers to thrive and respects the rules of engagement. The latter is a one-man show who does not care or need the people who believe in him and is willing to operate outside the box to win.

Yet despite the different labels, Trump and Sanders follow the same modus operandi to achieve their goals. Both masquerade as uncorrupted advocates of the people by challenging the failed establishment and saying what their followers want to hear. Using their charisma and their followers’ blind trust, they deliver dangerous and divisive politics to scare their followers, whip up anger and then cast arbitrary blame onto fellow citizens because of their ethnicity, gender or monetary success and seek retribution from them and their protective institutions. Strip away the personas and ideologies, and exposed is a pair of political opportunists exploiting a frustrated nation for the ultimate prize in the land. Both are seeking a mandate, and hopefully the people of this country are aware enough to not give it to them.

Reid Secondo ’16 is a frustrated American who hopes to wake up from the 2016 election nightmare to a recharged and refocused nation under a cohesive government. Who says we can’t dream, right?


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