Demagogue: a political leader who tries to get support by making false claims and promises and using arguments based on emotion rather than reason
We like to think of American democracy as a paragon. Yes, we know that it has many imperfections, but it has weathered the travails of history for over 200 years. While other nations have endured revolutions, major institutional changes in government or even dictators, the United States has endured with essentially the same system of government that it started. The United States is the longest continuously running democracy in history.
This doesn’t mean it has been easy. There has been a Civil War. There has been racial, ethnic and religious strife. There have been wars and depressions. And, there have been demagogues. Perhaps the greatest threat to American democracy is not the wars, bad economic times or even prejudice, but those who deliberately deceive the people through grand promises and vague details.
There has been a multitude of demagogues in American politics since at least the time of Andrew Jackson. Many, like Denis Kearney or Benjamin Tillman, based their emotional appeals on race. Kearney wanted to remove the Chinese from 1850’s California. Tillman institutionalized segregation in post-Civil War South Carolina. Others, like Father Charles Coughlin and Huey Long rose in the 1930s because of economic turmoil. Until he was assassinated, Long was considered a threat to Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election. Still others, like Joe McCarthy, were demagogues for ideological reasons.
The demagogue appeals to emotion over reason. While some, like Long, had detailed plans like his Share Our Wealth program, many, like McCarthy, don’t delve deeply into specifics. Today, we are seeing the rise of another demagogue – Donald Trump.
Trump is appealing to the basest of human emotions. His campaign is charged with a nativist view not much different from the Know-Nothing Party of the 1840-50s. At that time, the Know-Nothings rose against Irish Catholic and German immigrants. They were called Know Nothings because when asked by outsiders what they talked about, they replied that they “know nothing.” Trump is basing his campaign on a similar anti-immigration appeal. His targets are illegal immigrants from Mexico, even though the flow of illegal immigrants has eased dramatically. He has even accused the Mexican government of sending their criminals to the United States. When pressed for evidence, Trump has only made a weak comment about talking to “border patrol people.”
Trump may as well wave some blank papers in his hand and claim that he has secret documents showing the Mexican government’s compliance in criminal immigration. A similar tactic worked for Joe McCarthy when he sought to out communists in the State Department, at least for a while.
Eventually, a demagogue’s act grows old. If the demagogue doesn’t take power, like Hitler or Mussolini, then the demagogue’s sway over the masses weakens. As frightening as Trump’s lead in the Republican polls is, it is highly unlikely that he can get the nomination, much less win the general election. A sizeable minority can often be lead by demagogues into the voting booth, but that minority rarely becomes a majority. For national elections, that possibility is almost non-existent.
Trump’s successful demagoguery is not likely to last long because he is making a crucial error. Demagogues survive by appealing to the fears, anger and emotions of their supporters. However, Trump regularly veers into self-defense mode. He has the thinnest skin of any politician in America. Anyone, whether another candidate or media personality, who criticizes him spins off a vitriol response from Trump. While Trump’s supporters may rally around their man initially, his constant defensiveness takes attention from his message. His supporters are concerned about their own fears, not Trump’s angst about public embarrassment. That will eventually be his undoing.
A smart demagogue would avoid the public quarrels that Trump engages himself. His current spat with Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly is an example. This likely means that Trump will soon disappear as the leader in the GOP Presidential nomination. If he doesn’t, then we are facing a greater threat to American democracy than the usual Democrat-Republican policy squabble. Times like these are the times to be afraid about our ability to self-govern.