First off, this is a book predicated on a particular point in time: the Trump presidency, along with the shifting of regimes in Europe and elsewhere. While its themes are timeless, the book would have been unlikely to gain such a wide audience eight or ten years ago. Recent events have heightened awareness of a threat that has been there all along, just below the surface.
Anyone who has been paying attention to U.S. political events and discourse will recognize that there has for many years existed within the general population (and therefore also among politicians, pundits, broadcasters, etc.) a segment whose views would fit within the term “fascist”. In and of itself, that is not necessarily a cause for concern; the presence of a broad range of views in a society is a healthy thing, as long as reasoned and civil discourse prevails and no one faction gains ascendancy. The problem arises when any one faction contrives to gain power and render all opposing views illegitimate; especially so when those in power acquire the tools of enforcement to silence other views, redefine truth and treat dissidents as criminals. Regrettably, those of a fascist tendency have shown their determination to exercise such powers whenever they have gained ascendancy. Communists have done the same. History has also shown that democratic regimes are vulnerable to the schemes of those who would seek to subvert the democratic system. What all this proves is that a system of government as conceived by those who founded the USA remains an experiment; it is not inherently self-sustaining and requires constant vigilance to keep it on course; many regimes that sought to replicate it have failed.
Reading this book brought to mind an article published in Maclean’s (Jan, 2021) titled “Trump Reloaded” that included a quote by a Northern Iowa sheriff that “The United States is not a democracy; it’s a republic.” That statement, despite appearing to be overly simplistic, bears a grain of truth. The USA is neither a pure democracy nor a classic republic but a hybrid of sorts. Regrettably, the sheriff’s statement also reveals much about the American world view: the belief that some citizens are just better equipped, by God and nature, to rule. There exists a widespread distrust of democracy. It often gets messy and does not sit well with those who perceive a sharp divide between “us” and “them”; democracy may pose a threat to those in positions of privilege. It demands nuanced debate, a willingness to entertain other arguments and many yearn for simpler solutions to complex issues.
We in Canada have also had our share of would-be demagogues; the fact that they haven’t gained much of a foothold is probably more luck than good judgment. It also helps that Canadians by and large tend to be a bit more patient people than Americans; we’ve been somewhat more prepared to tolerate the failings of our politicians and just wait to vote them out of office. And having multiple political parties makes it harder for any one of them to gain the upper hand for long.
Demagoguery thrives on discontent by concocting a legend that those who feel aggrieved like to hear; it’s comforting to be told that one’s disadvantage is the fault of someone else — whether it be Jews or immigrants or intellectuals or “elites”, whatever. Solving economic or social problems is never simple, quick or painless; compromises and sacrifices are always necessary. The demagogue never explicitly tells his audience what those compromises are. And demagogues always lie, because lying is easy and the truth is usually inconvenient.