Trump Embodies The Definition of ‘Demagogue’

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

“A political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.”  -Definition of a demagogue

We have heard the term “demagogue” used a lot in this election year by both opponents of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and by political observers on the left as well as among mainstream Republicans. We have heard the word used regularly on television and radio, and read it in print. But what are all these people talking about when they refer to Trump as a demagogue and why is being one such an indictment of character?

In an observation on American politics written in 1838, author James Fenimore Cooper listed four criteria that must be met to qualify as a demagogue:
- they posture as men of the common people;
- they trigger waves of powerful emotion;
- they manipulate this emotion for political benefit;
- and they threaten or break established principles of governance.

Michael Signer made these references to Cooper’s writing in an article he recently wrote for the Washington Post. He is also the author of “Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies”

Despite being a billionaire, Trump’s followers have readily embraced him. He has had little in common with the vast majority of his followers throughout his life. He grew up in a wealthy New York family and was given $1 million by his father to start his real estate career.

But there is no mistaking that he can come off with a working class touch when he speaks in his often abrasive, rambling way. You certainly wouldn’t compare him in style and tone to the Republican’s last wealthy presidential candidate Mitt Romney who exuded an upper class, privileged bearing.

It is his ability to “trigger waves of powerful emotion” that really connects him to his base –older white working class men and women. He promises to “Make America Great Again.” It is a slogan that seems to envision that he will return the country to a time when it was less diverse, more dominant in world affairs and economics, and more militarily feared.

He will return us to greatness by building a wall to keep out Mexicans and seeing laws passed banning Muslims from coming to the U.S. He will do it by building the most incredible military we’ve ever seen. He will do it by rewriting trade laws that favor only what the U.S. needs and wants. He will return America to a time before U.S. companies moved their factories to low wage countries and before computerized automation took away good paying production line jobs.

Just how he is going to do all of this a big unknown, but it resonates with his core supporters as does the way he inflames their passions and sense of outrage at what he says has been unfairly taken from them. At his rallies he says maybe a protestor “should be roughed up” or “punched.” He says, “Get him out of here!” with a dismissive wave of his hand about a protester at one of his rallies. Rough, tough talk that fires up his base and connects it more solidly to its leader. He will restore their lost sense of pride in themselves and their country.

Trump knows the formula that fires up his base. He uses it not through conviction of purpose, but as a tool of manipulation and seduction. Trump’s rallies can take on the feel of a lynch mob. How far a stretch is it to hear the words “Lock her up!” constantly and passionately chanted at his rallies morph into “String her up!”

Trump is not a true Republican nor a true conservative. He has held both sides of issues such as abortion, gun control, military action and trade. He has endorsed and given money to Democrats and Republicans. His financial support and personal endorsements, as he has said himself in the past, are geared to getting what he wants. It was a formula that got him the Republican nomination and one that he hopes will get him elected president.

Trump threatens the very principles upon which America has been built – freedom of the press and freedom of religion. He says he would make it easier to sue the press for libel and bans newspapers from covering his campaign. He would ban an entire religion from entering the U.S. and has condoned government surveillance of their places of worship.

He insults and demeans people with disabilities. He criticizes a sitting judge of Mexican heritage who was born in Indiana. The judge just happened to be presiding over a lawsuit Trump is involved with. Pressuring a judge from what could be a position of political authority is also a violation of the judicial and political principles.

Trump has violated the very basic principles of not only what it means to represent a national party, but to run for political office. He has insulted a national war hero, U.S. Senator and former presidential Republican candidate John McCain saying that he doesn’t respect someone who gets captured in war. He insults the Muslim Gold Star parents of a U.S. soldier who died in battle. He refused, until forced, to endorse the Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in his primary race. He has insulted the Republican National Committee.

Though it is not listed among Cooper’s four characteristics of a demagogue, another one surely is a grossly inflated, but easily bruised sense of self-importance. It is the need to be constantly praised. Those who cross him, no matter how petty the slight, get a full measure of his insulting Tweets, letters, and public comments. He has to demean his detractors to feel better about himself.

In his article, Singer writes, “In The Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton warned of leaders who begin ‘paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.’” It is that fear that Trump could easily become a tyrant, one ignorant of his own ignorance, that would lead America erratically and petulantly at a very dangerous time that worries not only Democrats, but mainstream Republicans as well. That is why so many Republicans are starting to say they will not vote for him in November. Some say they will even vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

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