Has anybody else noticed the physical similarity between Donald Trump and Biff Tannen, the Back to the Future bully? Long before he ran for president, The Donald reminded me of a real life jerkish bully who was one class ahead of me in high school. The loud mouth, the overbearing attitude, the threatening physicality… we all know the type, and it all fit. But then I ran across a photo of Trump when he was maybe 14 years old, and the image of the slightly older Biff leaped back into my mind. It’s a stereotype, I know, but I have to wonder. Was Biff’s character modeled after Donald Trump, or is The Donald modeling himself after a fictional character in an attempt to attract the support of the “Biff’s Gang” type of voter? Whatever the order of events, or the intention behind it, the similarity is unmistakable. Biff Tannen and Donald Trump have the same methodology. Appeal to the fears and prejudices of the crowd. And Trump’s not the first politician to build a reputation that way.
Huey “The Kingfish” Long
In the depression era of the 1930s, Huey Long, governor of Louisiana, garnered the attention of Americans who fell for his offer of “every man a king” and a thorough redistribution of wealth. When he was elected to the United States Senate in 1932, he continued to run Louisiana from Washington and began a reorganization of state government that crippled the power of local politicians. Through threats and bribery, he personally took over the hiring and firing of state employees. Long was said to have presidential aspirations, but was assassinated by the relative of a judge he was gerrymandering out of office.
Father Charles Coughlin
At approximately the same time, in those years leading to World War II, Father Charles Coughlin broadcast a weekly radio show from the Detroit area. In the late 1930s, Coughlin increasingly expressed sympathy for the fascists in Germany and Italy. In his ramblings, Hitler represented a clear answer to Communism and the threat of Jewish bankers, who he claimed were responsible for the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Though it all sounds insane now, he had over thirty million regular listeners to his weekly radio show. Years before Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck, Coughlin was called The Father of Hate Radio.
In the 1950s Joseph McCarthy, a United States senator from Wisconsin, spent five years publicly searching for Communists in the United States. He claimed more than 200 state department employees were members of the Communist party. McCarthy claimed “The State Department harbors a nest of Communists and Communist sympathizers who are helping to shape our foreign policy.” In the months following, he accused a long list of political enemies of being Communists, Communist sympathizers, or homosexuals.
Citizens were encouraged to report on their friends if they observed anything that could be considered suspicious. Reputations were ruined, people lost their jobs, and a few were even driven to suicide. In my favorite McCarthy quote, he said “I’ve got a pail full of shit and I’m going to use it where it’ll do me the most good.” In the end, people tired of McCarthy’s attacks, and the majority of Americans turned their backs on him. That was the good news. But the bad news is that political demagoguery hasn’t changed much in recent history.
Just in case there was any danger of American politics turning civilized, onto the scene gallops Donald Trump with all his wisdom. Or is it Wit and Wisdom?
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists….”
“I am calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
“Our great African-American president hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore.”
“It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming!”
“An extremely credible source has called my office and told me that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud.”
“I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are beautiful.”
“If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?”
Funny. Right? Maybe not so much.
Never underestimate the power of a demagogue. Historically, the human eagerness to divide into warring camps and demonize the other side has always fed on popular prejudices and paranoia. And Donald Trump embodies, puts a face on, all the worst characteristics of the demagogue. We should do better.