Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America tell tales that seem impossible, demagogues being elected President of the United States and the violent consequences, minorities being persecuted, hunted, fanaticism and mass hatreds abounding. It’s an old formula – stir fear among the populace and then promise to protect them. Donald Trump showed his cards last night and got his South Carolina audience worked up into almost an evangelistic state. His message is simple: Muslims in America are dangerous and he’ll protect us, classic demagoguery – “a person who appeals to the emotions and prejudices of people in order to advance his own political ends.”
Trump has stirred a dangerous pot, just what ISIS wants. If one was a conspiracist, perhaps it could be said that he is merely a Trojan horse for Ted Cruz, who independently stated: “We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” If Trump drops out, Cruz will inherit the far right fringe of the Republican Party. Was that the “plan” all along? Does Cruz know that carpet bombing usually implies leveling an area, civilians and all? It sounds more like revenge than a strategy, something to make his followers “feel good.”
Unfortunately, the horror in San Bernardino has fed into all of this, “legitimizing” such dangerous rhetoric and escalating it to personal attacks on President Obama (who now has low polling numbers about keeping America “safe,” the exact inverse of what those numbers were after bin Laden was nailed) - and subsequent accusations that any call for stronger gun control laws is merely politicizing the San Bernardino tragedy.
But such calls have gone on for years with fierce Republican and NRA opposition. I do not naively believe that better gun control laws and enforcement would magically eliminate such tragedies, especially in the short term. But I do believe that the Second Amendment, which was written in the days of musket rifles and flintlock pistols, needs serious updating.
At that time, we needed an armed militia and also the founding fathers believed that an armed citizenry would be deterrent to the rise of a despotic government. The world has changed since then, weapons of war unimaginable to our forefathers, and, now, mostly in the hands of the military and law enforcement. To make some of the same weapons legitimately available to the citizenry no longer serves the purpose of protecting us from a despotic government as the military will always have superior weaponry (is an AK-15 adequate protection against a tank?). The proliferation of automatic weapons just further endangers us all, giving us a false sense of security by just having one in our closet.
No, this is a country of laws and checks and balances and we have to depend on our tried-and-true institutions as well as the much maligned (by Trump in particular) fourth estate to keep our government transparent and trustworthy. If some fringe element threatens us in our homes and public places, we need better intelligence to prevent it and rapid response law enforcement to protect us.
Fully automatic weapons (ones that operate as a machine gun) need to be banned, and guns should be registered just like a car, an equally dangerous thing. That means getting a license, passing a rigorous background check and license renewals (a gun owner having to report if it is sold, just like a car). Guns for self defense, hunting and target practicing are understandable but how can one argue that an automatic weapon is needed? Certainly not for hunting (where is the sport in that?). Do we really want our neighbors to be totting an automatic weapon citing Florida’s ambiguous “stand your ground” law as a justification?
Will that keep guns out of the hands of the “bad guys” as the Republicans like to call them? No, but it’s a start and of course the devil is in the details of how such gun control is administered. Senseless to get further into it here – I’m merely expounding an opinion.
Getting back to the demagoguery of Trump’s speech reminded me of a piece I wrote during the last Presidential primaries. I concluded it with a description of the movie A Face in the Crowd and it seems to be even more apropos to this Republican primary, so I’ll repeat what I said then….
A bit of serendipity led me to watch the 1957 classic A Face in the Crowd on Turner Classic Movies. Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, it depicts Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drifter who is found in a jail by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who she enlists to sing and talk on a local Arkansas radio station, he ultimately rising to the pinnacle of media demagoguery. He is nicknamed "Lonesome" Rhodes by Marcia, and she goes on the journey with him from obscurity to fame to fall.
The relevancy of this film, made more than fifty years ago, to today is striking. Lonesome is drawn into the political arena, and is brought in to help transform the film's Senator Worthington Fuller into a Presidential candidate. Lonesome instinctively and sardonically understands the manipulative power of language and media.
When he first meets the Senator, he advises him to abandon his stiff personality and give himself over to Lonesome's control: "...Your problem is getting the voters to listen to you. Getting them to like you enough to listen to you. We've got to face it, politics have entered a new stage, television. Instead of long-winded debates, the people want slogans. 'Time for a change' 'The mess in Washington' 'More bang for a buck'. Punch-lines and glamour....We've got to find a million buyers for the product 'Worthington Fuller'....Respect? Did you ever hear of anyone buying any product beer, hair rinse, tissue, because they respect it? You've got to be loved, man. Loved....Senator, I'm a professional. I look at the image on that screen same as at a performer on my show. And I have to say...you'll never get over to my audience not to the millions of people who welcome me into their living rooms each week. And if I wouldn't buy him, do you realize what that means? If I wouldn't buy him, the people of this country aren't ready to buy him for that big job on Pennsylvania Avenue....I'm an influence, a wielder of opinion...a force. A force."
To Marcia he says :"This whole country's just like my flock of sheep!....Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be 'Fighters for Fuller'. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the president - and you'll be the power behind me."
An actor on Rhodes' show asks him about Senator Fuller: "You really sell that stiff as a man among men?" Lonesome Rhodes replies: "Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got 'em like this... You know what the public's like? A cage of Guinea Pigs. Good Night you stupid idiots. Good Night, you miserable slobs. They're a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers."