What is a demagogue?

Last week USA Today called Mr. Trump a “dangerous demagogue.”  Earlier in the week, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times in its endorsement called him “a thin-skinned demagogue.”  Dozens of other editorial boards and commentators have used the “D-word.”   But what exactly does it mean?

Demagoguery is a problem implicit in democracy, an occasional illness, if you will, to which democracies are particularly prone. Democracy gives power to the demos, or people, and from time to time the people fall prey to the illusions peddled by a strongman who manipulates them emotionally with the goal of transcending ordinary political conventions or constitutional limits.  We call such a person a “demagogue.” Hamilton warned in The Federalist against leaders who begin “paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”  

The demagogue label is thus highly elastic. The critical question is how to distinguish between a charismatic populist politician and a dangerous demagogue. What is that line and when is it crossed? Among political scientists and historians, there seems to be a consensus that when a politician exhibits each of the following six characteristic behaviors, he or she has crossed the line and can be considered a demagogue:   

Inflammatory language. The speech of the demagogue is designed to excite popular passions and foreclose reasoned discussion; as Michael Singer, who wrote a recent study of the demagogue, put it, “bringing maximal heat and minimal light to the public discourse.”  

Lots of heat, but little light, is an apt description of the Trump stump speech, and certainly fits what we heard coming from the Trump side of the stage at the first debate. The New York Times analyzed all 95,000 words uttered by Trump during one week, and concluded: “The most striking hallmark was Mr. Trump’s constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery.”

Exploitation of popular prejudice and false belief. The demagogue appeals to the darker side of human nature, targeting the lowest common denominator in a culture, especially fear, resentment, anger, and hatred for a group of “others.”

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson argues, “Cynically exploiting fear is an art.  And Trump is a Rembrandt of demagoguery.” Trump’s message is aimed at the darkest corners of the American psyche. By dismissing mutual respect and human dignity as only so much “political correctness,” he brought forth an eruption of latent anger, prejudice, hate, and misogyny, and rode this foul wave to the nomination. 

Intolerance of criticism. The demagogue lashes out against every slight. Rarely content with simply disagreeing with opponents, he seeks to undermine their legitimacy. The demagogue seeks to silence or eliminate critics.  

And so we see with Trump, whose “birther” libel was irresistible for its potential to de-legitimize President Obama, who wants to change the libel laws in order to silence his media critics, and who could not resist using a presidential debate to pursue a long-standing feud with another celebrity. In the same analysis of a week’s worth of Trump talk, the Times reported: “Mr. Trump tends to attack a person rather than an idea or a situation, like calling political opponents ‘stupid’ (at least 30 times), ‘horrible’ (14 times), ‘weak’ (13 times) . . . .”

Incitement to, or tolerance of, violence. Even before he embraces actual organized violence, the demagogue typically “green lights” violent acts by his supporters, and titillates his audiences by hints of violence to come. 

Trump signaled his approval of violence at his rallies (“maybe he should have been roughed up” (about a protester assaulted by Trump supporters), “I’d like to punch him in the face”).  His speeches are infused with words “kill,” “destroy” and “fight.” At an event in Raleigh, Mr. Trump was asked by a 12-year-old girl, “I’m scared — what are you going to do to protect this country?” His reply:  “You know what, darling? You’re not going to be scared anymore. They’re going to be scared.”

Rejection of normal rules of political conduct. The demagogue thrills his supporters by bucking the norms of political life. He lies with impudence, validates previously off-limits calumnies against the targeted “other,” and declines to follow rules and procedures, accusing the established order of being corrupt.  

Here Trump provides a textbook model, with a wholly unconventional campaign that violates every prior standard of acceptable political behavior, and repeated accusations that the process is corrupt and “rigged” against him.

Belief that the passions of the people justify violation of the constitution and laws. Demagogues typically do not understand or accept that in a constitutional democracy, the will of the people is limited by the rule of law.  

It doesn’t matter how many people support closing mosques or registering Muslims, it violates the constitution and cannot be done.   But Mr. Trump insists that it be done, and justifies it as the will of the people as embodied by him. When challenged that our troops might well refuse to obey an illegal order to kill the families of ISIS fighters, Trump replied:  “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me.  Believe me. . . .  If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”

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The rise of a modern American demagogue has been expected for a long time. In 1997 the late philosopher Richard Rorty predicted that eventually “something will crack. The . . . electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for . . . One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion . . . All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”  

As so many thoughtful commentators have noted, many of Trump’s most ardent supporters share some genuine grievances and anxieties. And in many ways the system has failed them, and failed us all. But the embrace of a demagogue, no matter how valid the popular resentments that fuel him, always ends badly. Always. At some point, even his most die-hard supporters will realize, as Mark Singer put it, “they’ve been sold out by a huckster who coveted their votes only for the sake of his colossal self-regard. And that, all along, he had nothing real to offer.”