Monday, March 14, 2016

Demagogues: Built on Fear; Inciting Fear

Another election year Tuesday is soon upon us. In the last couple weeks as Donald Trump has been moving closer to a possible nomination. As that has been going on there continues to be the discussion of Trump as a “demagogue.” Adding to that thought were videos of protestors being punched at Trump rallies, then the protests and clashes in Chicago that moved Trump to cancel a rally there on Friday.

So, I asked, what really is a demagogue? Here is some information from

Webster’s defines a demagogue as “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.” The word comes from the ancient Greek demos, or people, referring to common or working poor.

Over time, it has been applied to political figures who have used fear, paranoia and scapegoating to win support. [Senator Joseph McCarthy, the “communist-hunting” senator in the 1950s, is often cited as the single best example in American politics.]

The term has also been used to describe GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, who called Mexican immigrants "drug traffickers and rapists" and … proposed closing the United States to all Muslims.
So far, so good. Popular prejudices, false claims and promises. In some ways it sounds like many politicians. What makes demagogues different? It seems it is the aspect of playing on prejudices and clearly false claims. McCarthy would make unsupportable statements as fact. Then, because he said them, they were reported as facts. No one was able to check on them- or if they did they were censured and attacked by McCarthy and his supporters.

But the article goes on.
“There’s a fine line between populism and demagoguery,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for American Politics. “Both words describe rabble-rousers. Populism can be used for good, to invoke the little guy versus big business or big government. Demagoguery is a kind of extreme populism that preys on peoples worst fears and often hidden emotions.”
Something else became clear when reading that paragraph. In some ways it explains the rise of a “rabble-rouser” on both sides of the political scene this year. The GOP has Trump, although no one would call him a populist. He is the one building on anger as well as fear. He stirs hatred in much of what he says. He is channeling the anger and hatred of others, consolidating it in himself, and then giving it a type of legitimacy.

Sanders, on the other side, has an edge to him as well. He does not inflame anger as much as offer promises to overcome the fears of those who think the “1%” is too powerful. But, like Trump, he is tapping into energy and underlying concerns of groups of people.

It is interesting to note that, while both build from people’s fears and concerns, it appears that by definition, the demagogue goes beyond what is good into incitement of greater fears and potential difficulties. Was this past weekend’s clash in Chicago (ironic!) indicative of potential difficulties coming?

But why here? Back to the article:
Alan Levine, political science professor at American University, says that demagogues only exist in a democracy.

Their rise occurs before a dictatorship is successful, and so in his opinion dictators like Hitler do not fit the bill as demagogues.

“A demagogue exists in a democratic contest and maintains a technical legitimacy through winning votes. A dictator doesn’t need that kind of legitimacy. Dictators are worse than demagogues, who still operate in a democratic system,” Levine said. “To the extent that which our politicians ignore the Constitution, and don’t feel bound by the Constitution, that lays the stages for the coming of a demagogue.”
Quite a bunch of interesting information in all that. The take-away is that demagogues arise in democracies. Which would allow for Hitler to have started as a demagogue since he was first elected and then gathered the power to himself, taking over as a dictator while building on the fear and anger of the German people post-World War 1. What seems to make demagogues different is what I have to call a "negative" passion that is more "against" than it is "for." Demagogues build on hatred and fear, but give no solutions other than building walls, inflaming prejudice, and reinforcing stereotypes. Demagogues place loose and easy with truth, yet lay out their opinions as true.

We have had some classic demagogues in American history. From again.
Pitchfork Ben Tillman:
He was a Democratic governor and U.S. senator from South Carolina. He led a paramilitary group during the state’s violent 1876 election. As governor, he helped passed bill to remove the right to vote for black men.
On the floor of the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death in 1925, he ridiculed blacks and boasted of helping kill them during that election. His aggressive language gave him the nickname “Pitchfork.”
Sometimes a populist can easily be seen as and act like a demagogue.
Huey 'Catfish' Long:
This outspoken Louisiana governor was also the inspiration for the main character in Robert Penn Warren’s novel “All the King’s Men,” about the rise of a southern politician and his downfall at the hands of an assassin.

Long was a true populist, who started a “Share the Wealth” program to redistribute tax revenues from corporations to the poor in his state. He also built charity hospitals, schools, roads and bridges as well as a substantial political operation throughout the state. Elected U.S. Senator in 1932, he continued to pass legislation through proxies in the Louisiana legislature.

Long was assassinated on the steps of the statehouse in 1935, a month after declaring his candidacy for the presidency, which was stoked by his nationwide "Share the Wealth" clubs. His enemies also called him a demagogue.He often did use National Guard troops to intimidate opponents.. or worse.
One from the past 50 years:
George Wallace:
Upon his election as governor of Alabama in 1962, Wallace vowed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The following year, he stood at the doors of the University of Alabama defying federal troops who were sent to enforce a Supreme Court order to allow blacks to attend the school.

The lifelong Democrat ran for president in 1968 as a third-party candidate with the American Independent Party, winning 46 electoral votes and 10 million popular votes. He returned as governor of Alabama, but was shot and paralyzed during an attempted assassination attempt during his 1972 presidential campaign. In his later years, Wallace apologized to black leaders and rejected his racist and segregationist views.
And the ultimate American demagogue up to this point is probably Senator Joe McCarthy. His hunt for communists in government and the entertainment business is legendary.

I will be writing more about this in the next week or so. Tomorrow is another election day, though. At this point, let's just watch and wait- and be very observant of what is happening. It is not a pretty year for American politics.

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