Six months ago, we spoke to political theorist and author Michael Signer about whether or not Trump technically qualified as a "demagogue." Signer's answer was, unequivocally, "Yes," based on Trump's posing as a man of the people, his emotional and inflammatory rhetoric, his manipulation of that emotion for political gain, and his attempts to break established rules of governance. But though a demagogue he may be, Signer was certain that the American political system--and our own best impulses as citizens--would keep such a figure from attaining the highest office, as it has in the past.
Now, Signer is only more certain of Trump's demagoguery, but his faith in the system is shaking. Bob talks to Signer about how things have progressed since last December, why he's worried, and what, if anything, journalists can do.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. As we've heard, there are any number of ways for the nation's foremost name caller to be characterized himself, from "liar" to "carnival barker," to the ever-reliable "short-fingered vulgarian." Back in December, we asked author and political theorist Michael Signer if Trump also deserved the epithet "demagogue." He said, yep, what with his populism, scapegoating, his antidemocratic leanings, Trump is a textbook case. And yet, when we spoke to him back in January, Signer was optimistic because the founding fathers knew about the threat of demagogues and they designed a system that was equipped to deal with them.
MICHAEL SIGNER: Demagogues thrive when we are cynical about truth. They start to deflate when we put faith back again in public reason. The American people, in the end, always choose that demagogues are beneath them.
BOB GARFIELD: Six months later though, he’s having second thoughts. Michael, welcome back to OTM.
MICHAEL SIGNER: Well, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Your second thoughts aren’t about whether Trump’s a demagogue.
MICHAEL SIGNER: No, no, not at all. I think that's become even clearer.
BOB GARFIELD: The question is whether the democracy has the wherewithal to deal healthily with him. Why are you beginning to have nagging doubts?
MICHAEL SIGNER: Alexi de Tocqueville, who was the Frenchman who visited the United States in the 1830s and wrote the great book, Democracy in America, which we still read, his thesis in that book was that regular everyday Americans were so committed to the health of the constitutional democracy that people were very wary about the concentration of power and corruption and tyranny, and that has given people over the beginning of our country a lot of grounds for optimism, saying that the people will always rescue the system from anybody who might prey on it, who might play to our prejudices or passions. The fact that Trump has gotten this close to the presidency gives me pause.
BOB GARFIELD: So Tocqueville observed that we understood the system and were all in with it. In the ensuing 185 years, do you believe the basic understanding of and appreciation for separations of power and rule of law and civil liberties have somehow dissipated?
MICHAEL SIGNER: That's what I’m worried about. You have a cultural cynicism about leadership that creates a boulevard that somebody like Trump can just drive right through by attacking any and all institutions as harmful to American greatness. You have a corrosion of civic knowledge among your kind of rank-and-file folks. I think that the media really has shelved its responsibility that it traditionally had for being a, a kind of conservator and influence over the values of freedom of speech and separation of powers. And then if you have widespread economic anxiety and you have widespread national security fear that were pre-existing and somebody like Trump comes along and he says, I’m not just gonna play to those, I’m gonna amplify them and sort of wrap them up into this message of, I’m the one to solve all your problems, and all that together has created this perfect storm.
BOB GARFIELD: Are the circumstances such that the press should be getting out of its comfort zone of assiduous objectivity and become more confrontational –
MICHAEL SIGNER: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: - because the threat is so large?
MICHAEL SIGNER: Yes, yes. With a demagogue, the medium really is the message. When you give him the space to be an emotional entertainer, then he is winning that day, by definition. So I think that people need to shake him out of that mode with tough, demanding questions and by confronting vacuums of fact or policy where they are and highlighting threats to our constitutional principles. The media, when they say, well, I’m just being objective and I’m gonna just let him bluster on in my interview with him and not truly confront him because I’m being objective, it’s not being objective. It’s being a conspirator.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Waldman, elsewhere on this program, says he believes we've turned a corner, that a couple of recent Trump ruptions, including Judge Curiel and his funding of veterans groups, have finally gotten the somnolent press awakened to its function to preserve an orderly democracy. Are you maybe a victim of premature consternation?
MICHAEL SIGNER: No. The lesson of history with demagogues is they are as slippery as eels and they’re quicksilver and they’re chameleons. I think that Trump has the ability to change entire - not just narratives but to change his entire appeal, you know, within another news cycle. It’s about the passions and it’s about the gut, and it’s about them. It’s about their authoritarianism. Different rules apply.
So I think that anybody who congratulates themselves or us for turning a corner without understanding that that corner [LAUGHS] has to be turned in the right way every single minute of every single day between now and Election Day is fooling themselves and is laying the, the groundwork toward [LAUGHS] – toward, toward doom. So I think that this calls for vigilance and constant action.
BOB GARFIELD: Notwithstanding the suspicion of the elites and the resentment about being the losers in globalism and feeling that you've lost your essential Americanness, and all of those things he preys on, I just don’t understand how he appeals to any single human being.
MICHAEL SIGNER: I know. The thing that people who just inherently hate him don't see is that there is an appeal. I think that his type is the rogue. That's really dangerous because the people who hate the rogue are not getting what's happening.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, I feel like I'm with my girlfriends in the bar and some guy with like his shirt open to his bellybutton and a lot of gold jewelry comes up and makes some sort of really obnoxious line, and my girlfriend’s like going for it and walking away with him, and I'm thinkin’, wait, what, him? Ew!
MICHAEL SIGNER: That is the story of demagogues. The original demagogue in Athens was named Cleon. Everybody thought he smelled bad. He was the son of a tanner, I think, and he was a general and he was sort of bombastic and vulgar. Vulgarity comes up a lot with demagogues. Their critics, who miss them, always think that they're just beneath, but they win by being beneath because there is a level that they’re operating at that those critics - not only that they don’t like, they just don’t understand, and that's their glide path.
It’s exactly what happened with Hitler. I mean, remember, people thought that it was – he was surrounded by thugs; it was unthinkable that you could have somebody like that move into actual power, but he did because people didn't take it seriously enough.
BOB GARFIELD: [SIGHS] Well, I really appreciate you spending the time.
MICHAEL SIGNER: Thank you so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Signer is author/lecturer at University of Virginia and recently-elected mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia.