Somewhere up in the blue empyrean, H.L. Mencken is smiling. He warned it could turn out this way.
The cigar-chomping bad boy of American letters had a low opinion of the voting public. The "booboisie," as he called them, were too easily taken in by the scoundrels, quacks, charlatans and (his favourite label) mountebanks who populated U.S. politics in the early decades of the 20th century.
"As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people," he wrote in 1920. "We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."
A century later, with millions of Americans flocking to a reality-TV star who refers to the "7/11" terrorist attacks and chows down on a taco bowl while tweeting "I love Hispanics," Mencken's prophecy seems uncomfortably near fulfilment. Donald Trump's rube-rousing, fear-mongering speech at this week's Republican National Convention seemed to confirm all of his warnings about how demagogues manipulate a gullible electorate.
Was Mencken right about the booboisie? Is democracy too important to be left to the people? Are we wrong to assume that the voter, like the customer, is always right?
Loved Twain, prudes not so much
Henry Louis Mencken was born on Sept. 12, 1880, in Baltimore. He was destined to go into the family tobacco business but read Huckleberry Finn when he was 9 – "the most stupendous event of my whole life " – and glimpsed a different future.
When his father died, the 18-year-old put on his best suit and hung around the newsroom of the Baltimore Morning Herald night after night until the editors ran his first story, a five-line dispatch about a possible horse theft. He went on to become a renowned editor, columnist and critic with a scalding wit and a heroic output.
He reckoned he wrote 10 million words in all. He produced books on Friedrich Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, a pioneering study of English usage in the U.S. – The American Language – and helped to launch The American Mercury, a leading intellectual journal. He fought censorship, prudery and Prohibition. He deplored all do-gooders and world-savers. An idealist, he said, "is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup." Puritanism was to him "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
His views on democracy never changed. He considered most politicians swindlers and oafs. President Warren G. Harding (1921-23) was "a decent, harmless, laborious, hollow-headed mediocrity" with "the face of a moving-picture actor, the intelligence of a respectable agricultural implement dealer, and the imagination of a lodge joiner."
He was hardly kinder to Harding's successor, the somnolent Calvin Coolidge. If Coolidge had character, Mencken wrote, "then so has a cast-iron dog on a lawn."
His contempt for the voter was greater still. The average citizen finds the idea of liberty a bit alarming, Mencken wrote in his book, Notes on Democracy (1927). Instead of embracing freedom, "He longs for the warm, reassuring smell of the herd, and is willing to take the herdsman with it." The "lower orders," as he unashamedly called them, are only too ready to embrace the first saviour who comes along to whip them into a froth. "The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots."
It's delicious to imagine the things he would say about the spectacle unfolding south of the border. I Told You So, might be one. Election year 2016 seems to give proof to his famous saying that no one "has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people."
'Arouse the fears of the mob'
Just think of the meal he would have made of Ted Cruz, the oily Texas senator who asked supporters to pray that God would "awaken the body of Christ that we might pull back from the abyss."
Mencken couldn't stand Bible thumpers. He threw some of his deadliest thunderbolts at William Jennings Bryan, the "Fundamentalist Pope" who ran for president three times and inveighed against the teaching of evolution at the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.
Or consider what wicked fun Mencken would have had with Bernie Sanders, the grumpy Vermont Senator who fulminated against Wall Street billionaires in his race against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Good rabble-rousers, he wrote, "not only know how to arouse the fears of the mob; they also know how to awaken its envy, its dislike of privilege, its hatred of its betters."
And Donald Trump? One Mencken biographer, Fred Hobson, told me over the phone from North Carolina that, if he were alive today, he might actually be drawn to the thrice-married billionaire, who at least has the virtue of not being a po-faced moralizer – or, as Mencken, borrowing an Australianism, might have put it, a wowser.
On the other hand, he deplored breast-beating patriotism of the "Make America great again!" variety. "One hears such pronunciamentos only from a dubious rabble of chautauqua orators, circus preachers, skyrocket politicians, bogus war heroes, half-witted pedagogues and professional uplifters, most of them with something to sell," he wrote.
Just as much, he loathed those who stir up fear of imagined enemies, as Mr. Trump did when he promised to ban Muslim visitors, erect a wall against Mexican migrants and stop "violence spilling across our borders."
Mencken wrote that the aim of politics is "to keep the populace alarmed by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins." The object, he said, is invariably to justify overriding individual rights and liberties. He saw it happen before his eyes during the First World War, when Washington rounded up enemy aliens and gagged the press. He complained that the Baltimore papers could not even report on a snow storm. He saw it again when authorities corralled suspected subversives during the Red Scare that followed the Russian Revolution.
He would not be the least surprised to see a leading candidate for president promise to torture terrorists and "take out" their families, laws and rights be damned. "Democracy," he wrote, "always seems bent on killing the thing it loves."
Of course, Mencken was a terrible crank, to put it mildly. He generalized about races and nationalities in a way that seems unforgivable today. He had rancid opinions about Jews, opposed joining both world wars and scorned President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, while Americans lined up at soup kitchens.
Not every government program is a swindle or every leader a cad. Not every mass movement is a mob. Mencken offered no alternative to the vulgar mass democracy he deplored, except perhaps the rule of the "first-rate man." The trouble is that the man is more often Putin than Pericles. Graft, misrule, fear-mongering, the trampling of rights – all of these are far worse in undemocratic countries.
But, then, Mencken didn't claim to be a political scientist. "I am not a constructive critic," he conceded. Alistair Cooke, the late British-born journalist who edited a collection of Mencken's best stuff, said that he set out to be nothing less than "the native American Voltaire, the enemy of all puritanism, the heretic in the Sunday school, the one-man demolition crew of the genteel tradition, the unregenerate neighbourhood brat who stretches a string in the alley to trip the bourgeoisie on its pious homeward journey."
His rants about the dangers of populism seem as current as ever in this weird season when candidates for the world's most powerful office play on fears of the foreign and resentment of the rich. Except perhaps for on-air satirists like John Oliver, whose brilliant takedowns have a whiff of Mencken, there is no one around today to match his elegant savagery. Much of the American media still treats the "preposterous bladders" who disgrace the political stage with the "utmost gravity… as if they were so many Goethes." Voters by the millions still fall for their "buncombe" (another Mencken favourite, later spelled bunkum).
Anyone who waded into a crowd of Rob Ford supporters at the height of the late Toronto mayor's infamy emerged with ample reason to doubt the wisdom of the people. Thirty-four per cent of voters still chose his brother, Doug, in the last local election. For that matter, a poll last fall found that 29 per cent of Americans – and 43 per cent of Republicans – persist in thinking President Barack Obama is a Muslim.
'Better than the best circus'
Mencken would have nodded knowingly – and shaken with mirth. "I enjoy democracy immensely," he wrote. "It is incomparably idiotic, hence incomparably amusing." A national political campaign was "better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and couple of hangings thrown in."
He was a regular at conventions from 1904 to 1948, the year a stroke cruelly robbed him of his power to read and write. He revelled in the silly speeches, the smoke-filled rooms, the delightful characters waiting to be skewered. The gaudy spectacle in Cleveland – Melania's blunder, Ted's revenge, Donald's "I alone" messianism – would surely have roused him to new heights of disdain.
What a shame he wasn't there, puffing on his cigars and hammering at his beloved Corona typewriter, to toss a few bombs at the booboisie.
Marcus Gee is a Globe columnist.