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“What is a demagogue? He is a politician skilled in oratory, flattery and invective; evasive in discussing vital issues; promising everything to everybody; appealing to the passions rather than the reason of the public; and arousing racial, religious, and class prejudices — a man whose lust for power without recourse to principle leads him to seek to become a master of the masses. He has for centuries practiced his profession of ‘man of the people’. He is a product of a political tradition nearly as old as western civilization itself.”

— Reinhard Luthin, American Demagogues

“History will teach us . . . that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants:
— Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1

The story that has been unfolding for the last few weeks — the story of an American president, several foreign leaders, and requests for opposition research made through formal diplomatic channels — comes from a very old script. Call it “The Rise of the Demagogue and the Fall of Everything Else.” It happens every time that the citizens of a democracy vote to hand power over to somebody determined to destroy it in order to get what they want.

Demagogues exploit a design flaw in democratic systems: if the people have the power to do whatever they want with their sovereignty, they can choose to give it away. The demagogue Cleon destroyed Athens when he lead it into an unnecessary and costly war. The demagogue Julius Caesar destroyed the Roman Republic when he crossed the Rubicon and proclaimed himself dictator. The Demagogue Adolph Hitler destroyed the Wiemar Republic when he became Chancellor and fundamentally reshaped the government.

Demagogues achieve power through democratic means and then use their power to destroy democracy. It’s what they do. It’s what they have always done. And they almost always use the same set of tools, which include:

  • Appealing to fear and resentment

This list was not designed to define Donald Trump, of course. It comes largely from an 1838 essay by James Fenimore Cooper called On Demagogues. But it could have been designed to describe Donald Trump. It all fits. When we look at the demagogue as a recurring historical type, it becomes clear that Donald Trump is following the script, which unfolds in different ways but always ends with either the demagogue or the democracy in chains.

This is why the current crop of Trumpland scandals matters so much. They are not isolated events or offenses-for-a-word. What is emerging before our eyes is a clear pattern of the President of the United States using our diplomatic corps — whose sole mission is to promote America’s interests and values abroad — to conduct opposition research on his political opponent. The only way to see this as something other than gross misconduct is to make some version of Louis XIV’s argument, l’état, c’est moi. Trump is the state. His political interests and America’s national priorities are one and the same. To disagree with him means to hate America.

This is how demagogues and dictators think. But it is not an argument that can be taken seriously in a functioning democracy.

Neither, for that matter, is the argument that the president can choose whether or not to cooperate in impeachment hearings. The Constitution’s primary safeguard against demagogues becoming tyrants lies in the separation of powers doctrine. Each branch of government checks each other branch. The Constitution gives the House of Representatives “the sole power of impeachment.”

There are interpretive difficulties in the Constitution, but this isn’t one of them. “Sole power” means sole power. The members of the House of Representatives are the only ones who have the power. And they have the sole right to determine how and when that power is exercised. The Constitution does not say that the House needs to take a formal vote before launching an impeachment inquiry. The House decides how to proceed with impeachment. The House decides what “impeachable offense” means. This is how “sole power” works.

The House’s sole power of impeachment it is one the structural safeguards that we have to protect now more than ever — along with judicial review, election regulations, term limits, whistleblower laws, the freedom of the press, and all of the other institutions that check the ability of a single person to exercise power outside of the rule of law.

By refusing to provide evidence — or to permit anybody in the executive branch of government to testify before the House committee — the President is denying the authority of the House of Representatives to exercise a form of oversight that is specifically enumerated in the Constitution. Nobody should be surprised by this. The whole point of being a demagogue is to undermine all of the structural safeguards against dictators so that you can become one.

It’s all in the script. Demagogues wreck democracy. It’s what they do.

Written by

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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