Unbecoming a Democracy – Patricia Roberts-Miller | The Open Mind

Unbecoming a Democracy – Patricia Roberts-Miller | The Open Mind


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner,
your host on The Open Mind. What is demagoguery,
why does it matter, why is it effective,
especially in its modern form and what can we do
about it here on the home front and to the
extent possible abroad? Here to answer those
questions is my guest today, author of
“Demagoguery and Democracy,”
Patricia Roberts-Miller is professor of rhetoric and
director of the Writing Center at the University
of Texas at Austin. Welcome Trish. ROBERTS-MILLER: Thank you. HEFFNER: This reminded
me of Harry Frankfurt’s little volume, a most
moving and timely account of the resurgence
of demagoguery and historically
contextualized. I wanted to start here: it
has been said and one of the chroniclers of Donald
Trump’s recent campaign rally in Hershey,
Pennsylvania said that his speech there was one
of his ugliest and most troubling performances. One of the things he
said in this speech that I think was pernicious
in particular was, it wouldn’t be a bad thing
if he became a dictator. Now he points to the
media when he says that, the cameras in the crowd
and says he’s just saying that to toy with them. So he’s masking a
wannabe authoritarianism. We all know that
would be his true desire, in comedy or at least comic
cues to his MAGA audience. Has it ever happened
before in your study of rhetoric to
mask a willful, an eager demagoguery
in a kind of comedy, because he’s serious about
wanting to be president for life and he’s only
perhaps joking to lighten the mood, but we
know what he means. ROBERTS-MILLER: It’s not
just to lighten the mood; it’s also to
avoid accountability. So one of the
characteristics of demagoguery is that people
engaged in it are very careful to make sure that
they can’t be really held accountable for
exactly what they said. And so that’s why they’ll
often engage in what amounts to
trolling or joking. But that’s what
it’s really about, is so that they, they’re
keeping all of their options open in terms
of what they can say. And so if they later
go back on something, they can always just say
that wasn’t really what they meant or, yeah — HEFFNER: And when we
had Jason Stanley here, we asked him about when
that translates into the raw fiber of your
government and your society changing, in this case
devolving into authoritarianism. So based on your knowledge
of history from the American experience, but
really more broadly when do those jokes
become reality? ROBERTS-MILLER: Well,
they’re always kind of reality. I think they become
reality when the person making them has power. So people can engage in
that kind of refusal to be accountable in the way that
people troll on the Internet. And if, and people will
make a certain kind of argument on the Internet
and if they get called on it, they’ll say, I was
just making a joke and you can’t take a joke, but
they’re just some jerk on the Internet as opposed
to someone who has the authority to make these
sorts of things happen. But I think, you know,
Huey Long was famous for that kind of thing. For instance Theodore
Bilbo was as well, McCarthy continually
backed off of his claims. It’s just; it’s
unfortunately a way that people are making politics
about identity rather than about actually arguing about policies
that we can all agree on. HEFFNER: You write Trish, in chapter six, “A
culture of demagoguery. Demagoguery,
de-politicizes politics in that it says we don’t have
to argue policies and can just rouse ourselves to
new levels of commitment to us and purify our
community or nation of them.” So us versus them is the basic
definition of demagoguery. Expound on that for us. ROBERTS-MILLER: Yeah.
That’s where it all begins. So it says that
really we are, we aren’t a world of
different people with different needs and
different ideas and different perspectives. We aren’t in a place where
people can benefit from the disagreement
that we might have, by listening to other people who
have different experiences. Instead, there’s an
“us” and “us” is good and rational and reasonable
and right and “them,” and they’re
completely wrong. And so the solution to all
of our problems is to give all the power to the
person or small group of people who really
represent us and to purify our world of them. HEFFNER: Right. Purge. ROBERTS-MILLER:
Absolutely. Yeah. HEFFNER: So in
that context, in the
American example now, you have a president whose
rhetoric resembles maybe one or two presidents in the
past, but not very many. I would say maybe
Andrew Johnson and Andrew Jackson; you might
highlight other examples or parallels of where
Trump mirrors precedent, but it’s rather
unprecedented in the extent to which
his entire preface, his entire substance of
diction and rhetoric is rooted in that:
us versus them. That is the
starting point, or even the preface
to the starting point. So, you know, are there
historical examples in America of how we, as
we said in the intro, averted course from the
framing of demagoguery of our own presidents? ROBERTS-MILLER: Well, so I
would say that JFK engaged in a lot of demagoguery
and a lot of “us versus them,” but it wasn’t
Americans who were “them.” It was cold war rhetoric. So it was us as Americans
unified against the Soviet Union and
against communism. So there have been other
presidents who engaged in that kind of
us versus them. I think what is troubling
about Trump is that he’s talking about a them
that is Americans. You know, that it’s just people
who happen to disagree. And that’s profoundly and
fundamentally anti-democratic. HEFFNER: In the Kennedy
and McCarthy era of course, there was internal
demagoguing around blacklisting and
communists who were accused of being
disloyal or treasonous. Could you expect the
demagoguery rhetorically to get worse
than it is now? And if so, what are
you watching for? ROBERTS-MILLER: Well, let
me go back to something that you were
saying a minute ago, the, about say
someone like McCarthy. We’ve often had people
who were maybe one or two steps away from the presidency
who are engaged in demagoguery. And it’s often a strategy
that presidents had, is that the vice president
would be the one who’d be engaged in the more
extreme kind of rhetoric. So that’s what Nixon did. That’s what Bush
did with Cheney. And you know, there’ve
been other instances along those lines. But this is the first time
I think that there has been someone
whose demagoguery, the President is engaged in
that level of demagoguery. And I think, and
what worried me, it was, you know, I was
working on antebellum rhetoric and seeing even
before Trump arose seeing that we were in a culture
where a demagogue would arise because there was
so much us versus them, but almost so much, and
what really worried me is people in an
enclave, you know, people only watching news
or listening to radio that reinforce, that reinforced
their preconceived notions. And a lot of that rhetoric
was about how terrible the other side is and how you
shouldn’t listen to them. Well, the premise of
democracy is that we benefit from listening
to people who disagree. We don’t have to
listen to everyone. Not all points of
view are equally valid, but there are some points
of view not ours that are worth hearing. And there was so much
discourse about discourse, if that makes sense, there
was so much of that kind of discourse that was saying,
don’t listen to them. They’re terrible. And that’s
what I think really worries me. And so I think what’s got
to happen is that we’re not going to get
saved from above. That’s never
what’s happened. What has to happen is that
citizens and voters and viewers and readers and
listeners need to do the work necessary to
hear other sides. HEFFNER: Now that we are
where we are and that the political party to which
he belongs is unconcerned about the escalation
of the rhetoric, to Jason Stanley’s
mind at one point, spontaneously or
incrementally, there’s going to be a
direct consequence of that rhetoric that leads to blood
being on Trump’s hands. And that may be said, sort
of in the abstract sense or in the cumulative sense
of his rhetoric towards the free press and
towards journalists. But I really go back to that
question of how worse does the language have to get for us
to be alert to the problem. And at that point, will it
be events transpiring and not words that we
see as the problem? ROBERTS-MILLER:
That’s a great question. I don’t know. It’s a short answer,
but I think that when demagoguery
gets drawn back, it’s because people say
that this is too much. And typically
it’s in-group, it has to be the other
parts of the us that say we’re not going to put
up with this anymore. So the, how democracies
die is a really good description of the times that
people backed off from it. McCarthy got called out
by fellow Republicans. That’s, that’s what
finally put an end to what he was doing. Roosevelt got called out
by fellow Democrats when he was really trying to
pack the Supreme Court and do something that
was extraordinarily authoritarian and
very anti-democratic. So that’s, the words have
to get to a point that, that in-group people
will call him out. HEFFNER: Right. I don’t know that we can
forecast a more vicious or demeaning rhetoric. I mean, I think that
it’s peak vitriol. I don’t — ROBERTS-MILLER: Well,
I mean, I read a lot of Hitler, so there’s still some
place to go, but yeah. HEFFNER: Because
you invoke that, I have to ask, was that
a technique used by the World War II era
authoritarians to mask their actual
objectives in a, in a kind of
comedy or humor? I mean, I don’t recall
Hitler and Mussolini or Franco really injecting a lot of
comedy into their routines. ROBERTS-MILLER: They did. HEFFNER: They did. ROBERTS-MILLER:
Yeah. But it’s the same kind. So that’s why it’s important
that it’s the bully kind. So it’s a, it’s a kind
where you don’t know if they’re kidding or not. And, I’m kind of
fascinated by the way that humor works in demagoguery
because for one thing, as I said, it gives, it enables
people to be unaccountable. And I first
became aware of that, not only in regard to
the antebellum pro-slavery rhetoric, but Ann Coulter
was a great example of that, of saying
things that good and then, and then saying it was
just a joke and why can’t you take a joke? But also I crawl
around dark corners on the internet and argue with
jerks and they do that all the time, you know, and
the second that they get called out and you, and
you prove that beyond reasonable doubt, they
are completely and totally fabricating information,
that’s when they’ll say jokes on you. I was kidding. But the, so it’s
always a kick-down humor. It’s a really
weird kind of humor. Most humor is sort of
self-humor that there’s a, when we make a joke,
there’s a little bit of; it’s a jokes on us too. And their humor is
always jokes on you. And that’s
what Hitler did. So he was famous for, if
you listen to some of his speeches, the
audience laughing. And one of the
most famous is, oh, I should
remember the exact date, it’s a 1939 speech
about Roosevelt, in response to Roosevelt’s
attempt to bring peace and to find some way to
kind of resolve things. And yeah, and the audience
is laughing the whole time and it’s completely
that kind of satire. And, again, you know, you
couldn’t quite figure out what was true. So what’s so one of the
things that happened with Hitler was he had
said very clearly, very early on in “Mein
Kampf” exactly what he was going to do. And people didn’t take
it seriously because they thought it was that kind
of hyperbole in which he often engaged. And hyperbole has
also a way of evading, enabling you to evade any
kind of accountability. So yeah, this is
actually pretty common. HEFFNER: In the particular
variety that Trump is employing, the variety of, I am
going to extend my tenure. ROBERTS-MILLER: I
think with Hitler, it would have been these
extreme comments that people thought he was
kidding on about and then he could back off if
it turned out that they weren’t going to
work out all that well. So, but the other person I
think of who figures into this as Cleon from
ancient Athens and he, and he, the one speech of
his that we have at least in Thucydides’
version of events is, yeah, you know, he
appears he’s advocating genocide and,
but he also says, I think democracy
is really stupid. And I think that this
shows that people actually can’t make decisions. So he’s there in the
Assembly saying that democracy is bad and,
and implying that he wants someone like him to be, to be
completely in charge of things. And it’s not clear if
he was kidding or not, but yeah, I think that’s
what people often do is say, I’m just going to
take over and — HEFFNER: The
foreseeable backstop, Trish is the
2020 election. If the Democrats did
prevail in the Electoral College and
it’s indisputable, then it may be
Republicans, because you say it has to
be in-group who would have to speak up then because
his inclination might be to ignore the will of the
people or ignore the will of the Electoral College. And they, that is the
foreseeable firewall or backstop at this juncture,
is it not that that seems to loom the
largest right now? ROBERTS-MILLER:
Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know what he would
do if he lost the election. I like to think
that he would get, I mean here, here’s the
thing to remember when he wanted to hold the G-20 summit
at one of his hotels, Republicans balked. So there is a line,
and they’ve stopped him, so he can be stopped and I
think they would stop him at that point. So I’m not — HEFFNER: That seems to be, yes, maybe the most
extreme scenario. But are there other
examples of where you could see this in
2020 playing out, where there is a
moderating force on the part of his own
party to rein him in? ROBERTS-MILLER:
I think so. I think that they, I think
there are a lot of people who recognize that it’s
ultimately not in the best interest of the Republican
party to tie themselves to someone who is as
uncontrollable. And, so that’s what makes
them at certain moments at least want to. You know,
he’s got a base, but mainly he’s got a
propaganda machine. He’s got a — there are
certain outlets that he can be counted, that he
can absolutely count on to, to do whatever is
necessary to support the position that he has taken, even if it means
completely contradicting a position that he
took two weeks earlier. And I think that’s
also what people, what viewers have to
say is not enough, that people have to say
they actually want to hear fair representations
of criticism of him, criticism of his policies, other
options that we might have. HEFFNER: It’s
been my stipulation Trish, that the only
person who can defeat Donald Trump in 2020 is
one who is both genuinely combative and
genuinely conciliatory. Rhetorically that matters
in terms of being able to possess that aspiration
of our higher ideals. You know, basically
the opposite of Trump, but also at the same time
being prepared to tango with him and
fight fire with fire. President Obama famously,
or I would say infamously said to a group
of Democrats, I don’t agree with this
idea of fighting fire with fire. Well, your fire doesn’t
have to be lies or bigotry, but you absolutely have to be,
to show up for a fight. And so I’m wondering
who is most prepared rhetorically to counter Trump? ROBERTS-MILLER:
Clinton beat him. Keep in mind, I mean,
Clinton beat him by an extraordinary
number of votes. They just happened to
be in the wrong place. So I don’t actually think
there’s only one candidate who can beat him. I think a lot of different
strategies will work with him, but also think, in
the same way that I think there’s a weird way in which
Trump is not the problem. The problem is our culture
of demagoguery that enables somebody like
Trump to thrive and succeed that the solution
is not going to be which of the candidates we pick. The solution is going
to be what voters do. HEFFNER: I
disagree with you. I think that the voters,
while they’re not soulless or emotionless creatures,
they require certain signals and because those
normal signals have been decapitated, there
are certain social and political cues that
have to be put forward. But argue with me here. I mean, you’re basically
saying that the rhetoric of the candidate who
opposes Trump can be normal rhetoric
of a politician and I’m saying I think it requires
some distinctive qualities. ROBERTS-MILLER: Yeah, I
don’t think so because, because it’s ultimately,
it’s not even what the, what that
person’s rhetoric is. It’s how that rhetoric gets
disseminated and mediated. That’s, and what it is
that people consume, what it is that people
choose to consume the extent to which
they rely on you know, on the mediated sound
bites that they get. HEFFNER: But it can
be a chicken and egg. In other words, if
President Obama had not delivered that momentous
and poignant speech at the National Constitution
Center in response to the Reverend Wright controversy, he might not have
won against McCain. He might not have
been the nominee. I mean there, there
are certain moments and contingencies that
are decisive here. And so I hear you. I mean, it is a little
bit of chicken and egg in terms of how the media
and the populace respond to your rhetoric. But I
don’t think that we can, I don’t think that
Hillary Clinton, for example, rooted her
rhetoric enough in history, in the aberration of what
Donald Trump would mean. Donald Trump said during
the debates and during the campaign, we don’t
have a country anymore. I suggested out
loud to folks, Hillary Clinton, you need
to say we won’t have a democracy anymore if
this man is elected. And you know that
that wasn’t forthcoming. So rather than belabor our — ROBERTS-MILLER:
But she won! HEFFNER: Well she
won the popular vote. ROBERTS-MILLER: Yeah, by
an extraordinary amount. HEFFNER: But messaging
and rhetoric in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida
and North Carolina, that has to be hyper-targeted. So I think you not only
need a rhetoric that is going to enable you to
resonate with the popular vote, but you really need a
state-by-state rhetoric too. I mean, but you’re from Texas. ROBERTS-MILLER: Yes. HEFFNER: So you’re
saying this from your vantage point as a Texan
and as a kind of authority on youth culture
and discourse, certainly in American
political history. So what, say thee about Texas
and the rhetoric that would, that would be demanded to
counter Trump in Texas? ROBERTS-MILLER: Well I’ll
answer about in terms of instead in terms
of Pennsylvania. So I’m really persuaded by
Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s “Cyber War” book. HEFFNER: Sure. ROBERTS-MILLER: And — because
that’s what I was seeing, you know, crawling
around the Internet in the summer of 2016 and I was,
I was someone who thought Trump was going to win. HEFFNER: Me too. ROBERTS-MILLER:
And it just, yeah. And it was because of what
I was seeing on the Internet. And a lot of what
I was seeing was, was, you know, trolling.
Really amazing trolling. And you know, of
course what happens on the Internet is that people
share something with a headline, you know,
that says Hillary Clinton caught kicking
puppies or something. And if you
clicked on the link, that wasn’t it at
all, so people were, it was something
about herbal Viagra, with an astonishingly
common number of times. And so if you, so clearly
what’s happening is people are sharing all these
links and some of it was, you know, people
I didn’t know. Sometimes if you
clicked on it, my virus protection would
say, absolutely not. You’re not going there.
And it would be Russia. It would be you know,
some sort of site in Russia. But these were also
people I did know who were sharing these things
without looking at them, who were sharing these
wild rumors about Clinton and things she had said. So the negative
campaigning about Clinton is I think actually what
made the big difference in that and especially the
negative, very targeted negative campaigning in
precisely those areas. I think the Democrats didn’t
know what they were up to. Now, I’m not saying Clinton
was a perfect candidate. I don’t think she was. And I agree with you
that there were a lot of problems with her
rhetoric. I think that whole basket of deplorables
was such a bad mistake. But what I’m saying is, even
with her flawed rhetoric, she did really well and I don’t think it was her rhetoric that
lost that election. I think it was that
really effective trolling, HEFFNER: Well, I was one
of those people who came to the same conclusion,
but not just from the trolling and
harassment online, especially on Twitter. I came to that conclusion
by looking at depressed youth turnout in
anticipation of Election Day in Pennsylvania. I’ll never forget visiting
Tampa and Pittsburgh and the depression of young people’s
interest was palpable. They weren’t engaged,
and the false equivalency narrative rung true. ROBERTS-MILLER: Yup. HEFFNER: Having said all that,
how do you win Texas? How do you win? So you can go
back to, you know, your beloved, in
some quarters, Ann Richards
and say you can, you could win that way.
A tough kind of Margaret Thatcher style of politics
on the Democratic side, but — ROBERTS-MILLER: But
she won because of a fluke and people forget that and
people forget the extent to which, you know,
there’s all that research that shows a large
number of people make the decision about voting at
absolutely the last minute. HEFFNER: That may be true but
in terms of the rhetoric, what would appeal to Texas? ROBERTS-MILLER: Beto
did incredibly well. You know, Beto did
very, very well. He did way better than
say Wendy Davis did. ROBERTS-MILLER: Right. And I, and one of the ways
he did it though is not just his rhetoric, but
he visited every single county in Texas. And I heard him speak at
one point where he was saying that he went to
places where people said we haven’t seen a
Democrat in years. You know, so it’s that it’s,
it’s that kind of, you know, on the ground
people out there, not engaging in, I mean,
I think Clinton did a lot of, the Clinton camp
did a lot of really they, believe the polls and then
they did really strategic, you know, sort of triage
and that probably was not a great idea, that
probably would’ve worked against a
traditional Republican, but it didn’t
work against Trump. So I think the kind of, I
think it’s not just what the rhetoric is, but how the
rhetoric is getting
disseminated. HEFFNER: Absolutely. In the closing
seconds we have, it’s clear that Beto
channeled RFK in that every county
tour of Texas. Can Elizabeth Warren, or
someone else, I mention Warren in particular
because of the Oklahoma roots, you know, is there a way for
non-Texan candidates, the remainder of the field,
to appeal to Texans? Do you see it as a viable
strategy because at least in the calculus of
some of the candidates, including former
vice president Biden, Texas is a purple state in 2020. ROBERTS-MILLER: Yeah.
It’s not only going to be them, but I think whether
they’ve got people on the ground knocking on doors. So I think people who
really care about this, you know, that’s as I said, I don’t think we’re going
to get saved from the top. I don’t think there’s a
Santa Claus candidate. I think instead what
it’s going to take is, is people getting out and
knocking on doors relentlessly. HEFFNER: The first
precondition is someone whose rhetoric doesn’t
alienate the population or at least enough segments
in the population to dissuade them from
voting, right? So demagoguery can be
galvanizing and boredom can be depressing. ROBERTS-MILLER: Yeah. HEFFNER: And so you need
an aspirational rhetoric. And I don’t know how you
precisely define that, but in the last
seconds we have, I just want to
give you a chance. What is the ideal
aspirational rhetoric? ROBERTS-MILLER: I think
you’re absolutely right that it has to be
about democracy, that, that’s, that that’s
what we need to be talking about right now is we are at a
point of a threat to democracy. Democracy is always
threatened and always needs defending. But that, that’s, we need
to recognize that if we lose democracy,
we all lose. HEFFNER: And we have the power
to not elect demagogues. I mean, you can elect demagogues
in a democratic system, but I hope that
the country is alert to the fact that
objectively speaking, the Electoral College elected a
demagogue in 2016. With that, Trish, thank
you so much for coming here from Austin. ROBERTS-MILLER: Thank you. HEFFNER: Pleasure. And thanks
to you in the audience. I hope you join us again
next time for a thoughtful excursion into
the world of ideas. Until then,
keep an open mind. Please visit The
Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to
view this program online or to access over 1,500
other interviews and do check us out on Twitter
and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on
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