Call It What It Is: A Rabble

AMERICANS don’t have a vocabulary to describe the pernicious behavior of political crowds, but our forefathers did. John Adams favored a strong executive to guard against “the mob.” He thought that partisans of popular democracy like Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine ignored the dangers of populist passion. The people, he wrote, can be as tyrannical as any king. That division contributed to the formation of the first parties — Adams’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democrats.

John Adams bequeathed his skepticism to his son John Quincy, who never overcame his instinctive abhorrence of citizens in the mass. At Harvard he had watched ragged debtors take up arms against the Massachusetts government in Shays’ Rebellion. In Europe, after the French Revolution, he saw how fanatical leaders had provoked the blood lust of “the rabble.” “In the name of the People,” he wrote in a diplomatic dispatch, “the Guillotine has mowed its thousands and the grapeshot have swept off their tens of thousands.” Like his father, Adams thought himself a “republican” devoted to the principle of representative government, as opposed to a “democrat” committed to greater individual participation in the political system.

When he ran for president, he resisted any form of democratic politics, whether delivering speeches, buttering up newspaper editors or (until the end) promising jobs to supporters. “If my delicacy is not suited to the times,” Adams wrote, “there are candidates enough who have no such delicacy.”

His stiff brand of rectitude was not, in fact, suited to the times. He eked out a victory over Andrew Jackson only by winning a tiebreaking vote in the House of Representatives. Four years later, Jackson unseated him. Jackson didn’t like crowds much either, but he understood their political value. At his inauguration he famously threw open the White House to any citizen who cared to track his muddy boots on the carpet. At that moment, “the mob” gave way in American thinking to “the crowd” — the mass of citizens as a source of political legitimacy.

We have lived, ever since, in that Jacksonian moment. To believe in democracy is to embrace the crowd. From the Lincoln-Douglas debates, to Woodrow Wilson’s barnstorming on behalf of the League of Nations, to Harry S. Truman’s whistle-stop campaign by rail, our leaders have usually addressed the crowd in a way that assumes its decency and intelligence.

And yet, as the two Adams men understood, the mob is latent in the crowd: At moments of great division, the mob can be summoned by a figure who exploits its anger and fear. Europeans, with their long tradition of populist fascism, know this far better than Americans, who nevertheless have had their own populist rabble-rousers — Father Coughlin, Huey Long, George C. Wallace, Patrick J. Buchanan.

Today, in Donald J. Trump, we have a genuine impresario of the mob — an instrument of the crowd who feels its resentment, its impatience, its distrust, and returns them all in slogans, epithets and witty (or witless) taunts. He validates the crowd’s malice by speaking out loud things people are not sure they have a right to say: Torture the terrorists, kick out the immigrants. At one rally, Mr. Trump said he wanted to punch a protester “in the face.” Some of his supporters have taken him at his word. At other times, Mr. Trump’s rallies thrum with barely suppressed violence.

Is it wrong, and partisan, to put the onus on Mr. Trump, and on the right? Isn’t this, after all, a moment of extremism in both directions? Well, no. Bernie Sanders rails against Wall Street’s fat cats and gins up his listeners to join a “political revolution.” But Mr. Sanders doesn’t call for the heads of bankers on a pike. The anger he seeks to channel is political, not personal. While labeling himself a democratic socialist, he is almost elaborately respectful of his political rival Hillary Clinton and the political process. He does not seek a personality cult; on the contrary, he assumes the crowd wants policy. Through figures like him, American democracy permits intense passions to be expressed, contained and, perhaps, vented.

At the same time, Mr. Trump is not alone. He draws on a generation of Republican appeals to popular resentment. After hearing for two decades that the government is a devouring beast, that Democratic leaders would betray the country or spend it into bankruptcy, that national health care and educational standards are tyrannies to resist, some Americans are eager to follow a man who tells them to punch whomever they don’t like in the face. Donald Trump doesn’t exhibit a classically fascist ideology. But he is a rabble-rouser who has found his rabble.

Can we really use that ancient word — “rabble” — in 2016? After all, it’s nothing to call Mr. Trump a bully; virtually the entire Republican establishment says he is. But “rabble” insults the American people and democracy itself. Still, democracy is a transaction between leader and led, and sometimes resentment and fear actuate the mob lying dormant in the crowd. We have reached that moment not only in America but across the West. In the face of slow growth, globalization and a refugee flood, roaming gangs of thugs are egged on by politicians claiming to man the ramparts of white, Christian Europe. Such forces must be acknowledged and resisted.

At the end of his career, John Quincy Adams and the nation discovered that they had sold each other short. After his presidency, Adams returned to Congress, where he fought, virtually alone, for the right of citizens to petition for an end to slavery. In 1843, at 76, he went west on a tour to Ohio and was greeted as a hero. A Pittsburgh editor wrote that Adams “has met the sober second thought of the people and it has at length done him justice.”

Adams’s career forms an allegory of democracy. He had, out of his sense of virtue, ignored the popular will and been brought low. But that same commitment to principle made him a hero because “the people” had the capacity for “sober second thought.”

Cynics can reduce a crowd to a mob. But politicians with principles and courage can help citizens recover their own noblest convictions.

This article was originally published by the New York Times on March 25, 2016

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Mar 25, 2016
James Traub
United States