Demagoguery is frightening. It underlies all of the ugliest chapters in human history. It’s always out there, but it tends to wax and wane.
We may be experiencing one of those waxing moments.
Two of the nation’s leading demagogues, Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump, are leading a charge to adopt what they’ve named “Kate’s Law”, a law that would impose automatic 5-year prison sentences on all those non-citizens who enter illegally after being deported previously for illegal entry. Why? Because Kate Steinle was tragically murdered by an undocumented immigrant who previously had been deported.
What alarmed me about this was seeing a Facebook post a former Democratic legislative candidate, Paula Pennypacker, appealed to her Facebook friends to support Kate’s law:
This is the issue that is a game changer for many Americans. As a Democrat, I will be supporting Kate’s law. A law now being considered in Congress whereby undocumented aliens who are deported and return to the United States would receive a mandatory five year sentence in a federal penitentiary upon conviction. Until Donald Trump spoke about Kate’s murder — I considered him a fringe candidate — not anymore. He totally got my attention when he spoke about the senseless murder of the woman who was in the prime of her life. Democrats, and Hillary in particular, had better get out front of this issue. Please join me in signing the pledge.
Is there any rationality behind Kate’s law?
In a word: no. If you think about it, the logic behind this law is much the same as the logic behind the justification for George Zimmerman murdering Trayvon Martin because Martin was wearing a hoodie. Crimes had been committed by black people wearing hoodies, ergo, Martin was dangerous because he was wearing a hoodie. Kate was murdered by a man who had been deported and re-entered illegally, ergo, anyone who re-enters the country illegally after being deported should be locked up for 5 years.
There have been murders committed by immigrants after entering the country illegally the first time. So, should we lock up all undocumented immigrants for 5 years?
This is dangerous territory. The false logic is to associate a benign illegal behavior, illegal entry, with a depraved illegal behavior, murder, and punish the first behavior as if it too is depraved. It would only be a slight extension of that false logic to associate a status, say race or homosexuality, with a depraved behavior as justification for punishing the status.
Voltaire observed that those who can make people believe absurdities can make them commit atrocities.
I’m guessing Voltaire would not be surprised that Trump is leading the Republican pack and Paula’s Facebook post drew 40 likes and 5 shares. Terrified, perhaps, but not surprised.
Why? Because demagoguery is not fueled by rationality, so the lack of any rational basis to support Kate’s law has no relevance here. Demagoguery is fueled by raw emotion. Demagogues operate by fanning the flames of emotion.
When it gets dangerous, when demagoguery can run wild, is when chain reactions set in: when one demagogue fans the emotional flame of another demagogue, who fans the flames of yet more demagogues. Here, we have O’Reilly igniting Donald Trump’s demagoguery, who then ignited Paula Pennypacker’s, who then attempted to fan the emotional flames of her 5,000 Facebook friends.
This is scary stuff.