donald trump
US President Donald Trump (Image: AP/Alex Brandon)

On February 20, 1939, 20,000 Americans crammed into New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden.

They weren’t there to cheer the New York Rangers in their hunt for the Stanley Cup, or for Joe Louis to defend his heavyweight boxing crown. They had come to be part of a “Mass Demonstration for True Americanism”, a self-proclaimed pro-American rally hosted by the German American Bund.

The Bund was an American Nazi organisation founded in 1936. Its forerunner was started three years earlier by Heinz Spanknöbel, a German Nazi, on the orders of Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess. In the vein of the infamous Nuremberg rallies, the spectacle was choreographed with American flags and swastika banners, uniformed storm troopers, martial music and Nazi salutes.

The crowd roared in unison: “Free America! Free America! Free America!”

It climaxed with a rambling speech by the Bundersfuhrer, Fritz Kuhn, denouncing president FDR as “Frank D. Rosenfeld”, smearing his New Deal program as the “Jew deal”, and slandering America’s leaders as Bolsheviks.

Eighty years later strident rallies have returned to America. But this time the bully pulpit is occupied by a bully president, who has spent the past five years whipping his supporters into a fervour of inflamed passions and intense animosities. Three syllable chants have become the call-and-respond tribute to his incantations: “Build the wall!”; “Lock her up!”; “Stop the steal!”

That final slogan is the latest iteration of the fever. Tailor-made to channel the rage of his defeated partisans, “Stop the steal” is just one more weapon in the disinformation arsenal that has barraged the nation nonstop since Donald Trump rode the golden escalator in 2015.

It has been long in the making. First floated in 2016 by veteran Republican dirty trickster, Trump confidant and convicted felon Roger Stone, the battle cry was shelved when that year’s presidential election yielded a surprise result. Fast forward to 2020 and Team Trump has dusted it off.

What is the purpose? There are several. First, as Trump’s niece Mary detailed in her recent book, Too Much and Never Enough, Trump divides the world into winners and losers. Being branded a loser is the worst humiliation he can imagine. As such he has spent his entire life redefining his failures to escape this particular tarnish.

His collapsed businesses and corporate bankruptcies are legion. Casinos, golf courses, an airline, a football team, a fake university and much more have blazed a trail of ruin that would have finished most businessmen. But Trump has made an art form of avoiding accountability. “Stop the steal” fits this pattern. Incapable of admitting defeat, he would rather destroy American democracy.

Second, Trump needs attention like a fish needs water. From tabloid news to Miss Universe to The Apprentice, he has courted the klieg lights relentlessly. In the Oval Office, he reached the zenith of his addiction. Now he confronts the ultimate withdrawal. Like any addict, he will do whatever it takes to avoid this.

Lying about a stolen election, flirting with a rematch in 2024, and demanding that GOP representatives and officials sign on to his attempted coup or face his wrath — and that of his MAGA warriors — are all tools to hog the spotlight.

Third, for all his bluster, Trump has a limited toolkit. He fawns and kowtows to those he esteems or whose favour he curries. For all others, attack is his go-to game plan. His presidency has been defined not by what he’s for, but by what he’s against.

Foremost has been his dedication to erasing his predecessor’s legacy. Barack Obama is everything Trump wishes he were. As with all bullies if he can’t have it, he must break it. On healthcare, immigration, climate change and the environment, labour law, civil rights, education and more, Trump has ransacked Obama’s policies. Whether these reversals were in the best interests of the nation were immaterial.

Now Trump faces an incoming Biden administration that pledges to return serve, by unpicking Trump’s handiwork and restoring Obama’s agenda, and more. For a man who likes to stamp his name on everything he touches, this represents the ultimate comedown. The only recourse is to smear and sully Biden and his government, now and forever.

Fourth, Trump likes being in charge. He knows the jig is up but with “stop the steal” he has shown he retains the fealty of millions of devotees who will believe anything he says and go to the mat in his defence. Crying foul won’t keep him in office, but it will help preserve his control in the near term over those beholden to him. He wants anyone seeking a political future in the GOP to continue bending the knee to him.

Last but not least is the grift. When it comes to Trump, always follow the money. In the weeks since election day, Trump’s campaign has barraged his diehards with hundreds of emails begging for cash. The dollars have flooded in. At last report more than US$200 million has filled his coffers, ostensibly to overturn the election outcome. As always, the devil is in the detail.

While a small portion of this infusion has funded his flailing legal efforts, the lion’s share will remain in his PAC kitty. Judging by past performance, Trump will exercise wide latitude on how he spends.

Although he preens as a self-made billionaire, it’s well established that Trump burns through his bank account at a tremendous clip. Aside from his inheritance and tax rorts, his greatest money-spinner was his turn as host of The Apprentice. That yielded an astonishing $427 million to his bottom line. But it took him 14 years to pocket that. “Stop the steal” makes this look like chump change. For an artful dodger, it’s the greatest gravy train he’s ever found.

So what happens next? An authoritarian leader with an insatiable thirst for power, attention and money will not go quietly. Does this herald the end of the republic? Doom for American democracy?

History provides a guide. Trump may be the apotheosis of firebrand populists in recent memory, but he treads a well-worn path.

In the 19th century, US statesman John C. Calhoun was a political titan. Over four decades he served in the House of Representatives and Senate as secretary of war and state and vice-president. He was a staunch defender of slavery and a driving force in the rupture that ultimately led to the Civil War. He did not live to see that calamity; nor did his vision prevail.

Andrew Jackson, a national hero from the War of 1812, rode a populist wave to the White House. Like Trump, he claimed he was the victim of a stolen election in 1824, which he damned a “corrupt bargain”. He bounced back four years later as a self-styled champion of the “common man” against a “corrupt aristocracy”. Sound familiar? Not for nothing has Trump declared Jackson his favourite president. Jackson was reelected and left his mark on the nation, albeit alongside repugnant stains.

William Jennings Bryan was a congressman from Nebraska when the panic of 1893 devastated America’s economy. It was the worst US financial crisis to that point. Bryan stunned the 1896 Democratic national convention with his “cross of gold” speech, lambasting the gold standard as the basis for the nation’s monetary system and calling for the reinstatement of silver as currency to expand the money supply and help ignite economic recovery.

Galvanised by his address, the delegates chose him as the party’s presidential candidate. At just 36, he remains the youngest nominee of a major party in American history. Even more astounding, he repudiated the policies of the incumbent Democratic president Grover Cleveland in the process. Bryan lost the 1896 election, and was beaten again in 1900 and 1908. The gold standard endured until Richard Nixon ended it in 1971.

These were just three of the fierce populists that shook America as it grew from a rural, agrarian, slaveholding society to a continental industrial power. In time more followed.

During the Roaring ’20s, Huey Long rose to prominence exploiting class and economic conflicts, first as governor of Louisiana, then as a US senator during the Great Depression. Originally an ardent supporter of FDR, he later harangued Roosevelt over the New Deal in favour of his more radical “share our wealth” program. Gearing up for his own tilt at the White House, Long was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1935.

Joe McCarthy and his sidekick Roy Cohn browbeat America in the 1950s with the “red scare”. His communist witch-hunt sprayed paranoia and fear and wrecked thousands of lives. McCarthyism was finally undone by Edward R. Murrow, one of America’s greatest journalists, whose scathing 1954 report exposed McCarthy as a charlatan and led to his censure by the Senate. He died a disgraced drunk just three years later, aged 48. Cohn carried on behind the scenes, later schooling Trump in the dark arts of politics, before also dying prematurely at 59.

In 1963 George Wallace, governor of Alabama, stood in the schoolhouse door pledging: “segregation forever!” He split the Democratic Party with two attempts for the White House in 1968 and 1972. During his second try an assailant’s bullet left him paralysed, and his influence faded.

Patrick Buchanan, a long-time Republican operative, challenged his party’s incumbent president George H.W. Bush’s reelection bid in 1992, running on a platform opposing abortion, immigration, multiculturalism and gay rights. He got 23% of the primary vote, seriously undermining Bush’s candidacy. Billionaire Ross Perot popped up as an independent candidate in the general election and helped seal Bush’s fate. Buchanan and Perot lingered for a time, but their appeal soon waned.

And who can forget David Duke? A one-time member of the American Nazi Party and former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist was a constant thorn in American politics for two decades. Having won a seat in the Louisiana state legislature in 1989, two years later he secured the Republican nomination to be governor. Although defeated at the ballot box he garnered 39% of the vote, which included 55% of white voters.

Eventually he ran afoul of the law for misusing donations raised from supporters, and was sent to prison for a false tax return and mail fraud. An outcome worth bearing in mind.

All these populists achieved varying degrees of success during their lifetimes. They differed widely in their political views and policy proposals. But the common thread was their bellicose charisma and knack for triggering the emotions of their disciples, frothing them into a frenzy of faith in their mission. And they all had enemies they blamed for their believers’ troubles.

So too Trump. Far from being an exception to political traditions, he embodies a steady undercurrent of spruikers who claim to champion the ordinary people against the elite, and contend they alone can fix it. There is no mystery. Whether by instinct or study, nature or nurture, Trump has wielded the same tactics throughout his life. Ever the hustler, in 2016 he finally struck gold. Until then he was routinely dismissed as a carnival barker with zero credibility. His critics underestimated him and ignored the repeated lessons of history.

They continue to ignore those lessons. Now, instead of dismissing him, many still tremble before him even as the circus winds down. Instead of a feckless fool, many reassessed him as a political Svengali with a freakish gift for communing with his voters.

Madison Square Garden was built by the legendary showman P. T. Barnum. He is best remembered for six words he may never have uttered, but which certainly would have been apt that February evening in 1939: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

The 20,000 suckers indoors that night were vastly outnumbered by the 100,000 anti-Nazi protesters outside. Never mistake a loud crowd for majority conviction.

That rally was the high water mark for Fritz Kuhn. He never did seize power in America to emulate his idol Hitler. After the rally investigators found he had embezzled thousands of dollars from the Bund to spend on his mistress and himself. He was prosecuted in December 1939 by New York district attorney Thomas Dewey, who went on to serve as governor of New York, and ran twice as the Republican candidate for president in 1944 and 1948.

Kuhn was convicted and imprisoned in Sing Sing. Less than three years later America and Germany were at war, and in 1945 Kuhn was deported to Germany where he was incarcerated again. He died alone and penniless shortly after his release.

Try as he might, the political odds are no longer in Trump’s favour. History suggests a very different ending to his odyssey than he might expect.