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, Reinhard H. Luthin, American Demagogues: The Twentieth Century, 1954
Demagoguery is the special problem of democracy. Both words come from the same root, demos, or “the people.” Democracy, or dēmokratía, means “rule of the people.” Demagogue, or dēmagōgos, means “leader of the people.” And therein lies the problem: in a democracy, where the people have the ultimate sovereign power, they are supposed to be their own leaders.
But having power also means having the ability to give that power away. This is the design flaw in the whole system. If “we the people” have the power to do anything we want, we can give that power away to someone else — someone who flatters us and tells us what we want to hear. Those who flatter kings are called “courtiers,” and they owe their livelihoods to the quality of their sycophancy. Demagogues are much the same, but they have to spread their sycophancy much thinner. They have to flatter the people.
But not all the people. Democracy is not really the rule of the people. It is a rule of a portion of the people — those who choose to vote, or those who are permitted to vote. And not even all of them. Just a majority (even if only a procedural/electoral one), no matter how small. Demagogues win by flattering a portion of the people — and by telling them that they are better than another portion of the people. Demagogues have to create and exacerbate divisions. They have to pit us against each other; it is the only way they can win.
And the victories of demagogues come at the expense of democracy itself. Demagogues like Cleon and Alcibiades nearly destroyed the Athenian democracy by plunging it deeper and deeper into the Peloponnesian War. The demagogue Julius Caesar destroyed the Roman Republic and replaced it with an empire. In the 20th century, demagogues such as Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler were elected democratically before destroying the democracies that gave them power. And contemporary demagogues have been responsible for much of the democratic backsliding that has occurred in the 21st century, including Vladimir Putin in Russia, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Recep Erdoğan in Turkey, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
And Donald Trump in the United States. Trump is the textbook demagogue, a latter-day Creon straight from central casting. Those whom he does not flatter cannot understand his appeal. But the portion of the demos that he pays nearly all of his attention to understand it very well. He is with them, he accepts them, and he believes the things that they believe that nobody in power has ever believed before.
When historians look for the moment that Trump’s presidency became possible, if not inevitable, they will probably settle on April of 2011, when President Obama released the long-term birth certificate that Trump had been demanding for months. Rather than backing down, Trump stuck to his guns and said he was not satisfied, that Obama still had not proven himself a citizen of the United States. At this moment, Trump communicated three important things to the segment of Americans that would be responsible for his 2016 victory: 1) that he believed something that they believed; 2) that he would not change that belief when presented with actual evidence; and 3) that he was willing to endure the scorn of the hated elites on order to stand with them. This is what it looks like when a demagogue flatters the people.
America’s Founders also understood the demagogue problem very well and took great pains to address it in the Constitution. The Federalist Papers begin with Hamilton’s observation 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.” Hamilton was not just mentioning demagoguery in passing. One of the primary purposes of the Federalist Papers was to show how the Constitution would prevent the emergence of a democratically elected dictator.
But the clearest, and best description of demagoguery in America comes from a brief essay by the American frontier writer James Fenimore Cooper — the author of The Leatherstocking Tales (The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, etc.) who, in 1838, wrote a collection of political essays called The American Democrat. One of these essays, called simply “On Demagogues,” lays out a set of clear characteristics by which Americans, should they ever need to, could recognize a demagogue:
1. “The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people.” Demagogues invariably present themselves as the voice of the people, maintaining the fiction that “the people” speak in a united voice and are universally opposed to the voices of “the elites.” In American usage, “the people” usually become either “the American people” or “We, the People,” while the enemy becomes (depending on the demagogue’s political base) something like “the media elite,” “the Wall Street elite,” “the Hollywood elite,” “liberal academics,” “wealthy industrialists,” or “the one-percent.” In the rhetoric of the demagogue, these elites don’t count as “the people.” They are the “not people” who frustrate the legitimate desires the actual people. And if these elites could just be made to disappear, the real people could govern themselves. (And most demagogues eventually get around to trying to make them disappear).
2. “The man who is constantly telling the people that they are unerring in judgment . . . is a demagogue.” The essence of flattery is telling people that they are right. The essence of civic flattery is telling the people that they are right, that whatever challenges they face are somebody else’s fault, and that they do not have to change the way they think or act in order to have successful lives and good government. This sounds like a natural thing for politicians to do, and indeed it is. But it can have severe consequences, since it leads populations to scapegoat the people whom the demagogue identifies as the ones who are “really” to blame for a nation’s problems.
3. “The demagogue always puts the people before the constitution and the laws.” The difference between democracy and majoritarian tyranny is that a democracy has a system of laws, checks, balances, and safeguards that we collectively call “the rule of law.” A major purpose of the rule of law in a democracy is to set up guardrails that prevent the emergence of demagogues. When would-be demagogues are checked by these mechanisms — court decisions, legislative vetoes, Constitutional requirements — they invariably call them “undemocratic.” They argue that, because they were elected by “the people,” their decisions should have precedence over “unelected judges” or “old-fashioned legislative rules.” These actions weaken the rule of law and pave the way for autocracy.
4. Demagogues “defer to prejudices, and ignorance, and even to popular jealousies and popular injustice, that a safe direction may be given to the publick [sic.] mind.” The ultimate aim of the demagogue is to apply the principles of democracy to every question — not just matters of public policy, but also questions of fact and questions of moral value. Everything is subject to a vote, and every proposed fact must be ratified by the vox populi. To flatter the people completely, the demagogue must pretend to accept their judgment on everything, and those who disagree with the public judgment (perhaps because they are experts in the field under discussion) must be castigated as both wrong and undemocratic. In this way, demagogues vanquish not just individual experts, but the entire concept of expertise: science, history, language, comparative politics, and all the rest of the things that people can spend their lives learning about vanish with a wave of the hand.
5. “This is a test that most often betrays the demagogue, for while loudest in proclaiming his devotion to the majority, he is, in truth, opposing the will of the entire people, in order to effect his purposes with a part.” For all they may talk about the people as a coherent group, demagogues are actually devoted to pitting the people against each other. Demagogues rarely create new prejudices; they take the ones that already exist and amplify them, giving people permission to say things that had previously been unpopular or taboo. Much as demagogues work to weaken the rule of law, they try to weaken the social norms that enforce civic friendship, opening old wounds and encouraging the eruption of anger and hatred that have been kept below the surface by a thin, but crucially important layer of civility and civic decency.
This final point is especially important. Demagogues don’t simply flatter the populace as a whole. They flatter a majority of the people by attacking and demonizing everyone else. Those who stand with the demagogue become “the people.” Everybody else becomes effectively subhuman: “animals,” “vermin,” “criminals,” “enemies of the state.” In this way, demagogues ensure that a portion of the people will always side with them against their common enemy. At the same time, they create the perception of emergency to justify their destruction of the constitutional safeguards that would otherwise check their power. A demagogue needs division the way that a fire needs oxygen. They succeed only because they are able to fan the flames.
The only way to defeat a demagogue is to overcome the polarization that feeds their power. This is the advice of the Venezuelan economist and journalist Andrés Miguel Rondón, who was part of the opposition to the populist demagogue Hugo Chávez during his ten years in power. “Don’t feed polarization, disarm it,” Rondón wrote in the Washington Post reflecting on the mistakes that Chávez’s opponents made:
It took opposition leaders 10 years to figure out that they needed to actually go to the slums and the countryside. Not for a speech or a rally, but for a game of dominoes or to dance salsa — to show they were Venezuelans, too, that they weren’t just dour scolds and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show that they were real. This is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing your standing. It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization.
But demagogues need certain conditions to thrive, and they come with warning signs that we ignore at our peril. They require polarization, and they exploit it for their advantage, but they don’t create it; it must be in place first, and it must have already weakened the norms and guardrails they intend to destroy. They tell us that people who don’t look or think like we do are our enemies and that only they can protect us. They tell us that we are right and that nobody really understands us the way that they do. And they promise to hate who we hate and punish those who hate us. And if we believe them, they steal our democracy.
The demagogue is the ticking time bomb buried deep in democracy’s basement; given enough time, they will always emerge and find a path to power. Democracies that survive find ways to expel their demagogues from power. Democracies that fail allow them to stay around long enough to destroy any mechanism that would allow the people to force them out. In 2016, the United States allowed a demagogue to come to power, and the cost to both our democracy and our standing in the world has already been severe. In November, we will have a chance to end the demagogue's career. It may well be the last chance we have.