The Weakness of Demagoguery over Summer Rolls

From a dinner of pho and vermicelli, I was walking to my Hyundai with a friend when she posed again the question of the day, the month, the past three years. Daubing a bit fiercely at a spot of hoisin on a button of her shirt, she asked how a man like Donald Trump could have become president. It had been a particularly trying few days. We relayed the president’s weekly offal about Vladimir, about the miracles of tariffs, how again he insulted black and brown people, the latest quid pro quo.

And again my friend, daubing, daubing, asked with an ire and yet with a resignation: how could he have become president? If I rolled my eyes, I certainly tried not to. Her question seemed rhetorical, exhausted and yet, as we walked, unavoidable once said. Once said, the question elicited a rumination all-too-practiced to satisfy. I barely listened. The man has been a failure all of his life, she repeated, wasting hundreds of millions of his father’s fortune. The bankruptcies. How could he have become president? the question lingered then stuck like a fishbone in the throat. I think she spoke of how he became a joke in the New York tabloids. Something of infidelity, vulgarity, conspiracy-mongering, Trump Plaza Atlantic City. He peaked as a B-level celebrity like Reagan — perhaps a clue to the conundrum, she suddenly spoke up. The Reagan comment I recall. Perhaps because I disagreed.

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Not Reagan, I insisted, also a bit fiercely, a fierceness the subject seemed to bring forth. The question still circled in the air bit. How did he become president? It was not a new, shiny fascination, nothing notable, nothing yet newly noticed. It was then, I think, I recalled the most oddly framed poster of Richard Nixon, once engulfed in the Vietnam War, now hanging in the Vietnamese restaurant, faded, pock-marked by bubbles of air. His thumb was up, with words we presumed a quote: “Defeat doesn’t finish a man, quit does.” Most strangely it was illegibly signed. The cornball quote had inspired a chili-eating contest. “Defeat doesn’t finish a man…” And with the tricky politico on my mind, the chilis still attacking my tongue, I started swinging away, circling back to the niggling question. How could either Nixon or Trump have become president?

It was so un-radically chic to compare the two, Nixon and Trump, so exhausted a subject as to be not worth repeating. And yet, as so many before us, we were sucked in to the comparison, unable to repeat the repetition. “Another Trump-Nixon special!” I proclaimed a bit too loudly for the neighborhood we strolled through that night. “And this one on the [White] house,” my friend replied as I offered her a courtesy laugh, not quite catching the turn of phrase.

Nixon, like Trump, seemed to have no business to be the American president. That was the point. Still sweating from the meal, I pointed out how each seemed permanently to have a frosting of sweat on their upper lips (I was pleased with my association). And, my friend added, both, at once, stood stiff and, at once, slumped before the cameras. They, too, hated the press. Crooks, all-but impeached (as of yet). A simultaneous sigh. Each, we sufficed to say, became the figure of a monster but, then too, also a punchline.

Both Trump is and Nixon was a demagogue, I repeated the familiar thesis. Most specifically, my friend speculated, inspired to vent, their demagoguery was a guise. Perhaps a show, a sleight of hand? And with this trip into revelation, there it was that made the conversation worth here repeating. I added, taking up the implication in her canny string of logic, perhaps their gross, populist fomentations came not from strength as we so often think but from weakness. Their gross, populist fomentations arose not from their fitness to lead but to mask the stink of their inadequacy. The word stink somehow lingered with some satisfaction in the night’s dark air.

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As we reached my Accent, we circled back discussing Nixon’s faults, relishing the chance not to talk of the commander-in-chief for the moment. How did Nixon become president? So unlike the call of his office, he had no ease with constituents. He simply did not like people. Nixon liked being alone. How did hebecome president? The tension over the quid pro quo president had dissipated as we rapped on he who was not a crook. Awkward, Nixon never wanted to shake hands, kiss babies, eat fried corndogs on sticks. We piled on his peculiarity. He couldn’t dance. A klutz, he could not hammer a nail. He hated state dinners. He hated dinner. He just wanted to be alone in his office for hours into the night scribbling on the yellow legal pad on his lap. A caricature of himself. Or a caricature he has become. Through those late nights with his chief of staff how he cried bloody murder of his enemies, how he ruminated on end over the daily crisis, circling and scratching and circling the issue like a dog finding his place on his favorite mat.

And yet, my friend specified, perhaps a bit abashed at railing on the lonely-man-in chief, grabbing a summer roll that had rolled out of its box, she proffered that so unlike our born-rich president, from near-poverty, Nixon worked his way up — congressman, senator, vice president, president. (All but governor, which he lost). He was an insider’s insider. For decades he played the game of earning votes and trading them. He had a reputation for reliability within the Republican party. He might have been a foul-mouthed and thoroughly unpleasant man but he could be counted on, even obsequious, a master at the political game. And he worked hard.

The car started, thankfully with more gas than expected. The boxes of leftovers having long tipped over, dripping (I would find out the following morning). And yes. Yes. I had a sinking feeling my friend was to return to Trump, as she did. For it was, she pressed, along this long climb of Nixon’s that the two men’s fates collided: from Nixon to Trump. Both Trump and Nixon. For the demagoguery took hold. It was their populist screed that hid political weakness, that awkwardness. It was their roaring populism that hid their misfit, that pathological uncomfortability with people. That they shared.

There was a day that fate saved Nixon’s seat in the Oval Office, at least for a while, I picked up the gist. It was November 3, 1969. Perhaps the 4th, no the 3rd. It didn’t matter, but it felt good to know a date. At the height of protest, all that belief, hippiedom and flower circles, power this and power that and all those marches, the rocks and bottles thrown, it was that speech on the Vietnam War that proved so fateful, perhaps the best speech of Nixon’s career, I began to opine.

I had studied Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech. No surprise to my friend. In graduate school I knew Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech. And I relished in that knowing. I apologized. But my friend humored me to hear my lecture. I painted the scene. The television hour was reserved. The heavy curtain drawn thick. Nixon began speaking to the nation slowly. He liked to memorize, thinking that the more rehearsed sounded more authentic, less awkward. And then, as the country waited for his great announcement, he began instead with an exhaustive review of the entire history of the conflict in Vietnam. He took shots at his Democratic predecessors — FDR, Kennedy and Johnson. Then, finally, at the heart of his speech, he spoke of a new plan to end the war. He had a strategy of “peace with honor.” But it would have to remain secret.

It was only in that last section that Nixon revealed his gambit. He addressed his constituency, his supporters, his people. And only then did the speech became historic. His supporters were the “non-shouters” and “non-demonstrators,” he professed with the harsh shake in his voice that made him sound both accusing and uncertain. It was then, in that key turn that evening, nearly two-thirds into his speech that Nixon pivoted to the wooing of what he called, for the first time, his “Silent Majority.”

Unbound, I began to recite the memorable words. Unbound Nixon reached for the catastrophic. “If a vocal minority prevails over reason,” he warned, if a vocal minority prevails over “the will of the majority, this Nation has no future as a free society.” Awkward, uncertain, Nixon found his voice. He performed. Under a populist guise, the lonely, solitary Dick Nixon, a man so seemingly unfit for great leadership, fed a righteous anger to the masses. For Nixon raised the stakes. He suggested a danger not only to the “Silent Majority” but to the very democratic character of the United States. A “vocal minority,” those marchers and demonstrators, threatened to rule not by ballot but by shouting.

The next morning Nixon, who had barely eked by his first presidential election, crowed that he had received telegrams in the high thousands. They declared that “We silent Americans are behind you.” It was a new army of Americans for a little man. In the “Silent Majority,” Nixon found a crew of clerks and sharecroppers and struggling veterans, those who did not protest the war, those who loved country music, those who recoiled at the new fads of marijuana and LSD and circles of empowerment.

Marijuana…hmmm…by then the mass of noodles had plummeted into my stomach. Perhaps a nightcap? I suggested. My friend answered with more fierce daubing at the hoisin, having grown silent. We were far from Trump and that was good. I quoted the poster from the restaurant: “Defeat doesn’t finish a man, quit does.” I defiantly ran an orange light.

And without defeat, without quit, I continued with my esoteric knowledge. It was like I was playing one of my classic tracks off an old LP. I am afraid I did not notice if my friend was still listening. The Nixon administration pitched to the heartland, I repeated myself from a paper I had long ago written. It felt good to repeat. I thought it was worth repeating: with a knowing nod to race, Nixon pitched “less and less to the welfare cult.” For this “Silent Majority” call to populism was not just aimed at moderate Democrats disturbed over the protest but to the white working class. In the previous presidential election that group had veered so far right as to vote for the segregationist George Wallace. Nixon wanted to add them to his base. With the “Silent Majority,” he promised to unite in his party culturally traditional Americans with stalwart Republican regulars — the electrician with the businessman, the hardhat and his boss. I still liked the turns of phrase still held up, but I grew silent, a bit uncomfortable with the public display of self-satisfaction.

And yet I sallied forth even as the ring of the present began to grate. With the turn to the ranks of his hazily defined “Silent Majority,” Nixon adopted a rough populism. His became a cultural campaign for “law and order” to bring back an American tranquility, a safety on the streets and in the schoolyards. His “new morality” fended off a counterculture, Nixon carped, against those “bombers of campus buildings” and the “assassins of police.” For those offending foes, he coined a new title. Sheepishly but with a sense of rightness to the course, I acknowledged again the grand comparison, the pull unavoidable. Like Trump, Nixon appreciated the power of branding. Like Trump, Nixon targeted not just the ally but the enemy. It was his often vicious Vice President Spiro Agnew who had the idea. Those bringing down the country with the counterculture and protest, those Trump has tarnished as “Socialists,” Nixon and Agnew dubbed the “Radical-Liberals” or simply “rad-libs.”

My friend finally steered us back from the intellectual masturbation of my “Silent Majority” recantations to the idea that had sprung us from Trump despair. That is, the key to each Nixon and Trump’s causes: they focused not on the weakness of their own political style but on the enmity in their adversaries. Just like the crab in their rangoon was just no good, I stretched for analogy before quickly realizing my failing, so, something about the dumpling wrappings, the Thai shop next door, sabotage, infiltratin, perhaps the health inspectors. “I can not think of how to wrap up the metaphor, eh, eh,” I tried to save my efforts. My friend did not humor me with even a smile.

We were nearing her apartment. And she ran quickly through the denouement. In the following election, the awkward, closed-off Nixon seemed still such an unlikely candidate. But the populist-in-chief won a historic landslide.

Reagan would regain this “Silent” crowd when he wooed the “Reagan Democrats” from the South and Southwest to the Republican ranks, from the working class and the sprawling suburbs.

Perhaps we could argue over the leftovers? Make another date? Go upstairs for a night cap? But no, the inevitable turn back to our own misery could not be avoided. A lump in the throat. A spinning rumination in the air. That question spinning. How did he become president? The question of the day, the month, the past three years. Trump. Bankruptcies. Obscenities. Ukraine. It was that most unlikely Trump who finished off that most unlikely Nixon’s feat. He buried those weaknesses of his. To hide his unfitness for the presidency, he followed the path not of unity but of enmity. And he too found the apt phrase for his fight. He made nothing subtle of his Southern Strategy to cover his weakness.

And we were back listing, back to the offal. Mexicans were rapists. Muslims banned. A wall to protect against the brown migrants from the south, those who marred the country, stealing the earnings of the white “Silent Majority.”

As I type, the spinning rumination lingers. My friend’s question, the question: how did they win? I return to my friend’s idea. It was not from strength but from weakness. Theirs was a game of distraction. For the utterly unpresidential Nixon and Trump, theirs was a game of distraction. Their demagoguery was key to masking their gross limitations. They hid behind a grasping populism. (They wrapped the crab rangoon???) It was both a ham-fisted and delicate dance. For they captured those who felt like outsiders by convincing them that they were the insiders who had been oppressed by those outside.

Trump picked the color red and embossed on “Make America Great Again,” an ode to the better days of yore when America was First. He pined for those mythic days when the “vocal minority” that Nixon had railed against — the “fake news” and Hollywood and intellectuals — had no wide audience. It had a Dick Nixon ring: Trump, that most unlikely winner, masking the currents of his unfitness, speaking of those days when the “Silent Majority” had their ideas heard plenty. Those mythic times of yore when all of the working class made an easy and fair living. Especially the whites.

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