You may have heard news media and political rivals describe Donald Trump as a “demagogue” this presidential primary season.
Hillary Clinton used the term to describe Trump in a MSNBC interview:
That’s what a demagogue does: They say whatever they need to say to try to stir up the passions of people.”
The term demagogue is conventionally defined as a political leader who tries to get support by making false claims and promises, and using arguments based on prejudice and emotion rather than reason.
In my research, I examine the efforts to hold demagogues around the world accountable for spreading violent propaganda. Kenyan Vice President William Ruto and former Vice President of Serbia Vojislav Šešelj, for example, are currently awaiting verdicts in The Hague for allegedly inciting violence against other ethnic groups. Dutch politician Geert Wilders is facing charges of insulting a group of people based on race, and inciting discrimination and hatred.
For better and worse, America is an outlier in its legal tolerance of demagogues who incite ethnic and racial hatred, in large part because of First Amendment jurisprudence after World War I that left political speech to compete in “the marketplace of ideas.”
A demagogue check list
The rhetoric of political persuasion is remarkably the same in different countries and across history.
In speeches, politicians embrace repetition, since even an outright lie gains legitimacy if it is repeated often enough. Politicians adopt unusual speech patterns like ungrammatical phrases and long pauses, that entice their audience to listen more closely.
Populists often conjure vivid images and intense emotions that highlight the sacred security of national boundaries. They often use innuendo to besmirch the reputation of opponents. Some claim divine inspiration for their cause.
Often coming of age in an atmosphere of uncertainty or instability, demagogues are different than garden variety populists.
Demagogues do not reassure the electorate with a rational assessment of risk as mainstream politicians tend to do. Instead, they play up existing threats, embrace a narrative of victimhood and sow despair.
Mocking, humiliating, and denigrating scapegoats is their stock in trade. Rwandan radio broadcasters followed this pattern during the 1994 genocide of Tutsis.
Demagogues often seek to instill fear by constantly telling their followers they are under mortal threat. Our research shows that encouraging an audience to take revenge on their adversaries, usually minorities and outsiders, is a particularly effective way to mobilize a base to action.
This is when political demagoguery turns from merely worrying to dangerous.
Who qualifies as a demagogue?
All successful politicians employ the techniques of populism.
Hillary Clinton has been known to exaggerate and repeat herself. Ted Cruz speaks with operatic pauses and has leaned heavily on religious imagery for his credibility. Bernie Sanders paints a haunting picture of inequality in America and his villain is always big corporations.
Most presidential candidates have suggested unsavory things about their opponents and virtually all of them paint a frightening image of what will happen if they’re not elected.
Crossing the line
But Donald Trump is the only current presidential candidate who crosses the line from populist to demagogue.
Trump exaggerates his personal wealth and his ability to solve intractable foreign policy problems. He proceeds through innuendo, for instance expressing disgust at Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during the last Democratic debate. Contempt and disgust are also expressed at Mexicans, African Americans, women, Muslims, and the disabled.
Our research shows that directing moral disgust at a target group unconsciously consolidates the identity of the in-group, his followers, who may as a result feel more empowered and in charge of their destiny.
Donald Trump has not refrained from moral justifications for violence. He wants to bring back “waterboarding” with the logic that “if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us.” When a protester shouted “Black Lives Matter” at a rally in Alabama and was punched, Trump condoned the violence afterwards, saying, “Maybe he deserved to get roughed up.”
Even the ardent defender of free speech John Stuart Mill recognized that defaming a group when there’s an angry crowd outside their house constitutes criminal incitement to violence.
A house of cards
For a short time, Huey Long, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan attained prominent positions of political influence as a result of their invective against ethnic minorities. The polls five days before the Iowa Caucus seem to indicate success for Trump, too.
But a reliance on whipping up anger and resentment is an unstable, high-risk strategy. Even Niccolo Machiavelli warned in his how-to manual of political deception The Prince that “[t]he populace is by nature fickle.” Supporters quickly turn against crafty leaders once they realize that they are being manipulated to satisfy the demagogue’s own egotistical craving for admiration and power.
Ultimately, the political instability and conflict inherent in the demagogue’s tactics precipitates his political downfall. Those who live by chaos ultimately perish by chaos.
Public awareness is key to stopping a demagogue.
A famous study demonstrated that just telling youths that they were about to be persuaded by a speaker made them more skeptical of the message. Laying bare the hackneyed techniques of the demagogue can inoculate listeners against them.
Demagogues are vulnerable because they set up massively unrealistic expectations. Eventually it becomes apparent that their claims lack sound basis. The ability of the media to puncture the bubble is one reason why demagogues despise them so intensely. Perhaps this explains Trump’s attacks on Megyn Kelly of Fox News.
At various points in its history, America has learned that scapegoating religious and ethnic minorities is not the best way to cope with uncertainty and challenging times. Rather, facing the future without fear and hatred is the only chance we have of uniting our diverse population and achieving economic inclusion and political stability.
In Trump’s case, the likeliest scenario is still one of political self-destruction. Egotism, hubris and a penchant for violence inevitably sow the conditions for the demagogue’s own demise.