'A charlatan's successful selling of his fabulousness'

Adapted from a recent item in Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in GoLocal24.com

"To argue with a man who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead."

-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802)


Donald Trump Jr. in 2008: "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. ... We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." Loans, perhaps?

“The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by the force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notions that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

“The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

-- H.L. Mencken, in The Baltimore Sun, July 26, 1920

Democratic republics are doomed by the inevitable decay and corruption of civic culture. For a while, enough of the electorate is willing to learn real facts, study the issues, reflect on the lessons of history and bestir themselves enough to take a few minutes to vote to usually prevent deeply corrupt and incompetent people from achieving high office.

But as time goes by, a growing proportion of the citizenry loses its civic enthusiasm as the education system ceases to teach them how their political and governmental institutions work and to remind them how precious and fragile those  institutions are. Meanwhile, society’s leaders become increasingly corrupted by self-interest, usually economic, and expend most of their political energies on strengthening the  (mostly hereditary) plutocracy that nurtures them. (Read The Sunday New York Times’s wedding section for the zoology of the plutocracy.)

The rise of the bread-and-circus-and-cute-kitten machines of the Internet and cable television accelerates this decline, encouraging citizens to stay within self-referential  and escapist echo chambers where lie-based but comfortingly simple and engaging stories are told  by employees of the powerful and facts are treated as irritating distractions.

Most people have always preferred well-told stories, including ones based on lies, over facts and reason anyway. And now the electronic media give them such tailored stories 24/7.

To think that most citizens operate on the basis of reason, as opposed to wishful thinking and fear and other visceral emotions,  is naïve. And they want a leader who can convince them that he/she will take care of them and make all the hard decisions in the public square for them.

For a while – and  the U.S. has had quite a run -- the ruling class in an officially democratic republic is proud to be considered relatively thoughtful, selfless and civic-minded. But corrupted by addiction to money and power, the proportion of such people in our leadership groups inevitably declines. The rise of the 24/7 electronic media  demagoguery machine accelerates this byintentionally distributing falsehoods, devaluing public probity and sowing confusion. As bad money drives out good, so bad (fraudulent) information tends to drive out accurate information.

In the end, democracies end  and dictatorships return; the latter is the natural default.  Nothing lasts. You can see this around the world now, where frustrated citizens  in democracies are increasingly looking to tough men to address their nations’ problems, if need be with extra-legal means.

The conservative columnist George Will wrote during the election campaign:

“The beginning of conservative wisdom is recognition that there is an end to everything: Nothing lasts. If Trump wins, the GOP ends as a vehicle for conservatism.’’

“Pessimism need not breed fatalism or passivity. It can define an agenda of regeneration, but only by being clear-eyed about the extent of {civic} degeneration, which a charlatan's successful selling of his fabulousness exemplifies.’’