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Demogogues flourish best when times are tough

Members of Congress are fond of repeating this old inside joke: "During my first term I wondered how I got here. In my second term I began wondering how the hell the rest of them got here." Perhaps most members would admit to similar thoughts.  The re-elections of one Congressman in particular were the most curious and, frankly, troubling to me. Oh, I understood how Jim Traficant was getting re-elected, but I couldn't help but be concerned.

 During the 12 years I served in the Congress with him, I frankly only expressed those concerns once. A member of his Ohio delegation and I were sitting in our House seats in the mid-1990s listening to Traficant give one of his clever tirades. I turned to her, Congresswoman Marci Kaptur, and said, "Marci, that is a dangerous man!"

 Traficant was recently convicted by a jury for bribery, racketeering, kickbacks and using his office for personal enrichment. Soon thereafter the House of Representatives voted to expel him, ending the congressional career of a colorful demagogue.

A look at that career tells a lot about his continual appeal to the voters and why they elected and re-elected him. He was a college football star. Athletes usually do well in the political arena and he was elected sheriff in 1980. As sheriff he was tough on criminals, running a number of undercover drug raids—another surefire way to win the hearts of voters.

Traficant cleverly played the underdog role, feuding with the FBI, the federal drug enforcement officials, even the mayor of his own city of Youngstown, Ohio. He carefully made himself the outsider, railing against the so-called powerful, including loud public fights with the IRS. If that isn't a sure way to achieve popularity, there isn't one!

He gained most of his notoriety, however, after being accused of accepting a bribe of $163,000 from mobsters. The law enforcement officials actually presented in court a tape recording of Traficant accepting the money. Nonetheless, in a widely publicized trial, Sheriff Traficant, not a lawyer, defended himself and surprisingly won acquittal. His fans in Youngstown were delirious with joy. "Jim beat the system." Everyone seems to love the underdog—even if he is a common scoundrel.

He was soon thereafter elected to Congress and began his sometimes amusing but always dangerous demagoguery. As a member of the House, Traficant methodically began identifying his targets of opportunity. He always selected them from on high: the federal agencies, the major political parties, the Congressional leadership. He knew that today's voters like those legislators best who seem the most independent; thus Jim was constantly criticizing his own Democratic party, threatening to become a Republican. He railed against "this big spending Congress" while loading pork on his own district. He laid withering criticism on the Congress itself. His constituents loved it—perhaps they never suspected that his independence was not a matter of policy beliefs but rather was occasioned by the grossest of motives—political survival and the personal need to showboat.

The voters in Youngstown and northeastern Ohio, Traficant's congressional district, are perhaps a template for what has happened too many times in America. Knowing them is to better understand how he kept getting re-elected. The Youngstown area was once the nation's steel producer, its industrial productivity driven by a workforce of 50,000. With the combination of the economic decline of the early 1980s and the changing international market place, the steel mills closed, unemployment reached 20% and population plummeted. Such places are ripe pickings for political demagogues. Traficant told the voters what they wanted to hear, held out the false promise that the old economic good times could return, scapegoated, got plenty of laughs, and racked up huge 80% victories on election day.

He is the classic Far Right populist, making his career by employing the populist tools: scapegoating, demonizing, creating conspiracies about the so-called elite, being anti-intellectual and appealing to the most base of political instincts.

Jim Traficant is in a long line of right wing populists. Throughout American history we have been plagued with them, both Democrats and Republicans. They flourish best when times are tough. The Democrat's Andy Jackson was a race-baiting demagogue who appealed to the common man. From the Ku Klux Klan to Father Coughlin to Jerry Falwell, from Joe McCarthy to Pat Buchanan—these people are political parasites with one hand on the flag and Bible and the other one in your pockets. They always find ways to appeal to people who are experiencing hard times by fueling their fears and cashing in on their dreams.  America is vulnerable right now and here in the Rocky Mountain West many of our good citizens are feeling their own hard times—ripe pickings for political demagogues.

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Author info

Rep. Pat Williams Rep. Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and is Northern Director of Western Progress.

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Politics, Montana, US Congress, Jim Trafficant

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