A few weeks ago I wrote about demagogues and their history. I noted that demagogues are found only in democracies since they need to get public support for their discriminatory, prejudicial, anger-filled positions. While they can sometimes appear to be progressives, in reality they are simply opportunists seeking their own self-promotion. We have had our share of demagogues in American history, Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Red-baiting witch hunt of the 1950s being the most famous and far-reaching.
Michael Singer, mayor of Charlottesville, VA, an attorney and lecturer at the University of Virginia, has been since the last election cycle about the rise and danger of Donald Trump, our latest national demagogue. He is the author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (2009) and has applied his general insight on demagogues to Trump. In a February 29 article in the Washington Post Singer listed four ways demagogues damage their country when they take power.
- First, a demagogue imperils his country in the international arena.
- The second danger is that the demagogue will surround himself with incompetent and dangerous advisers.
- The third danger is that the demagogue, who ascends to power by manipulating the passions of his followers, will fall prey to passions of his own.(Most often a demagogues narcissism will turn to other passions, issues, and plain old belief that they are above the law.)
- Fourth, demagogues like Trump threaten dissenters in an effort to silence them. (Singer)
After yesterday's Wisconsin primary, though, there may be an inkling of hope. Admittedly Ted Cruz has enough uncertain stands and fear-inducing statements. But he did show that with a concerted effort, Trump can be stopped. He lost by a very significant 13 points. (It may be interesting to note that Wisconsin was the home of Joseph McCarthy. Maybe there is a sense of not wanting to repeat history?)
But even that hope has its dangers. In its attempt to stop Trump at this late stage, they may very easily destroy themselves for this election year. Their only hope is that in the end Trump will self-destruct, his paranoia and prejudice, his hate and fear-mongering causing him to implode.
That is what happens to most demagogues in a democratic country that has a rich history like ours. They go too far, their narcissism gets the best of them, they believe their own rhetoric and then use their rabid but minority supporters as proof.
But we as a people can also do our part. Back in 2010 Singer wrote an article for The Daily Beast titled "How to Beat the Demagogues". (Link) He outlined how America has defeated what he called "militant manias" in the past.
1. Ad hominem attacks can backfire.
Ad hominem arguments are logical fallacies that attack the individual rather than the position they are maintaining. When the demagogue's opponents resort to these kind of arguments, they end up hurting their own cause. Even though the demagogue often resorts to this since they usually have poorly defined actual positions, to respond in kind often brings a reactionary response that only perpetuates the negative discourse.
2. Help educate people about our constitutional traditions.
Many times demagogues clearly care little about our American democratic and constitutional traditions. Even as they hide behind them, they are often ready to change them to suit their own ideology. The GOP's difficulty in maintaining a clear, positive constitutional stance has only assisted people like Trump. Their recent and ongoing refusal to have hearings on a Supreme Court nominee is a clear example.
3. Extreme opportunists usually self-destruct.
The ultimate hope for everyone challenged by demagogues is this one that I have already addressed above. Trump's response to his loss yesterday may very well start this process. How he attempts to spin the loss into something in his favor through blaming others could sow the seeds of his own defeat. Of course his defeat will never be his own fault.
4. Side with the people and show them results.
A demagogues opponents need to stay positive and give a clear alternative world-view to the one being espoused by the demagogue. While someone like Trump will attempt to be the person of the people's views, a consistent, concise, and positive approach to the same issues can go a long way. Again, the GOP's extremely anti-Obama stance over the past 8 years has set a negative precedent that has fueled Trump's rhetoric. Even in Wisconsin, the whole approach seems to have been "Stop Trump!" and not a more clearly laid out plan. It was an ad hominem approach which still could backfire. They must do something differently than they have before.
The Democrats need to be doing the same thing. Their biggest hope would be to be a clear alternative to the negativity of Trump and the toxic atmosphere that has fed his rise. Unfortunately, as the "under dog" Sanders has gained momentum, the establishment begins to react out of fear. Both sides there have moved toward personal attacks after what had been a somewhat civil discourse. Unless they can show they have a positive alternative, the election will continue to be difficult to watch.
Overall, perhaps, the greatest caution we should pay attention to comes from Singer in his 2010 article about how to beat the demagogues.
Demagogues have always been a mirror for the people. When democracies turn to lawlessness, it’s because the people abandon constitutionalism for the lowest common denominator. Conversely, when audiences choose the law over vandalism, it’s because the people have decided to protect their country.
Wisconsin yesterday gave me some hope that we might be at a turning point. I know it is still too early to tell, but as I have said before, ultimately I continue to believe in the American people. We will often rise to heights of honor and dedication to our country and our democratic way of life. This is one of those times that we will need to.