Unless you live under a rock, you know Donald Trump is thinking about running for president. His sensational public endeavors—pushing the White House to release President Obama’s long-form birth certificate and, most recently, questioning the authenticity of the president’s academic record—have met with astonishment, outrage, and dismay. A recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover featured a photo of Trump in mid-rant with the one-word headline, “Seriously?” Journalists, commentators, and even Jerry Seinfeld (who recently canceled an appearance at a Trump fundraiser) have taken to calling Trump a demagogue.
In recent decades, this powerful term, traditionally a scalpel for taking apart dangerous leaders, has become blunt and ineffectual through overuse. I’ve been thinking and writing about demagogues for a decade. I’ve been watching with a mix of bemusement and concern as Trump strains to elevate himself into an actual political figure, rather than the ego tornado he’s been for decades. But one of the lessons of history is that, while it’s easy to underestimate demagogues, it’s also easy to overestimate them. For the time being, I’ve concluded that Trump is not a demagogue. He lacks both the common connection and the lawlessness of classic demagogues, whether Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez today or, in the past, figures ranging from Benito Mussolini to George Wallace to Joseph McCarthy. Instead, call him a quasi-demagogue: a political figure with the desire, but not the chops, to manipulate the masses.
Demagogues are part of the natural life cycle of democracy. So much so that the Founding Fathers designed our various checks and balances and circuit-breakers in part from their mortal terror that a predatory mass leader—a demagogue—would convert popular adulation into American tyranny. James Madison, for instance, explained that “provisions against the measures of an interested majority,”such as an independent judiciary, were required to control “the followers of different Demagogues.” This doesn’t mean, however, that demagogues haven’t popped up throughout the country’s history.
During my years studying and watching demagogues, the one lesson that has stuck with me is this: Many politicians could become demagogues if they wanted to. They could choose the gross emotional appeal, the naked ambition, and the cunning blend of vulgarity and artistry that is the true demagogue’s métier. They don’t because most of them are governed by an ethic of shame. Where others blush and quail, the demagogue happily blusters ahead—crossing boundaries, coloring outside lines, toppling walls.
Demagogues often look most ridiculous to the people they’re most uninterested in impressing. When the colorful, autocratic Louisiana Governor Huey Long was sworn into the U.S. Senate in 1931, it was precisely his clownishness that gave him such political amplitude. He prompted a firestorm of controversy when he met a German naval commander paying an official call in a pair of green silk pajamas and a bathrobe. One scholar writes, “[T]he lesson he learned from the incident was less the importance of diplomatic niceties than the value of buffoonery in winning national publicity.” With these techniques, Long soon attracted more attention from the press than his 99 Senatorial colleagues combined. He would have challenged FDR for president in 1936, had he not been assassinated by the son of a political opponent in 1935.
You might think that Trump’s own clownishness puts him in the class of a Huey Long. But let’s take a closer look. As I argued in my book Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies, a true demagogue meets four tests. First, he presents himself as a man of the people, rather than the elites. Second, he strikes a very strong, even overpowering emotional connection with the people. Third, he uses this connection for his own political benefit. Fourth, he threatens or breaks established rules of governance. This fourth test is the most important, distinguishing a demagogue like Huey Long (who routinely used the National Guard to intimidate or brutalize political opponents, for instance) from populists like William Jennings Bryan (who, as rambunctious as he may have been, tended to play by the rules).
For Trump, let’s take the four tests in turn. With his Theater of the Absurd hairdo and his massively knotted silk ties, his Manhattan address and his glitzy brand, Trump is hardly a man of the people. True, he’s employing incautious bluster as a proxy for common appeal. “Authenticity” has become the coin of today’s reality-television realm, and there is a mass appeal to his straight-talkin’ persona—this is why his recent use of the “f bomb” plays to his curious political strengths, even while appalling elites. But for Trump to swap his fancy persona for that of a commoner would require him to blow up the brand he’s spent decades building, a task for which he is probably not constitutionally capable.
Second, Trump does not have the broad emotional appeal to the masses that marks the classic demagogue. Over the last decades, Trump has enjoyed billions of dollars of both paid and earned media exposure. He couldn’t be better-known by the American people. Yet he is consistently polling under 20 percent right now among Republicans and right-leaning independents (a recent CNN poll has him at only 14 percent), giving him a base of well under one in ten among the general voting population. The emotional surge for Trump among the very hard-core Tea Party right should certainly be noted. But it’s more likely this brushfire halts at a particular firebreak: the general American public’s hostility and suspicion to the Tea Partiers.
On the third test, it’s very unclear whether Trump is interested in actual political power, or just in increasing his personal brand and wealth. Even now, we can’t tell whether he will run—and keep running, after the glitz of the initial launch wears off—for president. Even if he gets into the race, will he slog through the hard work of an 18-month campaign, including getting on the ballot in all 50 states, participating in debates, developing policy positions? And, if he drops out, will he really have an interest in putting his shoulder to a real political end? Time will tell, but the initial signs are that this is mostly about Trumpery rather than government.
The most important test is the fourth—that demagogues, unlike populists, bend or break the rules. Trump clearly has no inhibition about lying for political benefit. But real demagogues go much further. Look at Joseph McCarthy, who used his selected issue of anti-communism to demolish people’s personal and professional lives. It’s hard to imagine that Trump really wants to encourage threatening behavior. But, if he ever started to ask his followers to test boundaries of lawfulness, to “challenge authority,” our hackles should quickly rise.
None of this means Trump isn’t worth taking seriously. To the contrary: Where Trump is succeeding in his demagogic appeals, he’s also illuminating shadowy corners of the American public. And we have to take a hard look at how this is happening. Demagogues, like nightshade, have always flourished in dark places of extreme economic or social distress. The 1920s were the last great era of American demagoguery, when Huey Long and the Detroit “radio priest” Father Coughlin rallied millions of terrified Americans against elites. It’s been no surprise that the 2010s, a time of similar distress, have fostered divisive figures from Sarah Palin to Glenn Beck to Trump.
The lesson here is that today’s restless, upset public needs reassurance—and vigorous economic policy that addresses their concerns. But we also need the media to exercise some discretion. In today’s fragmented, 24-7 echo chamber, where 500,000 nightly viewers qualify you as a pundit and one persistent blogger can take over a news cycle, the media has more responsibility for steering the ship of state toward calmer waters. Trump—as quasi-demagogue—is a creation largely of the media. The real conspiracy isn’t Trump’s mania du jour; it’s hundreds of news editors, assignment editors, reporters, and bloggers whom he’s playing like fiddles.
More broadly, though, history shows that the only real antidote to demagogues is an alert, vigilant civic culture. The ancient Athenians, exhausted by a series of vicious demagogues, passed a law exiling anyone who “proposed a measure contrary to democratic principles.” We probably don’t need to go so far, though some watching Trump today doubtless wouldn’t mind moving him to Canada. America, after all, is the land of the civic mores the visiting Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville chronicled and admired. And we almost always eventually turn on demagogues. The stars of Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, and David Duke all rose for a time, but, when they fell, they crashed hard.
We can never be complacent about our constitutionalism, and the Trump phenomenon bears careful watching, lest the little fires he’s clearly capable of starting spread into a larger conflagration. But, in general, Americans have shown they’ve got what it takes to nip even quasi-demagogues in the bud. Take note of Palin and Beck’s recent fates: Under heavy fire from the public for their own excesses (a persecution complex in Palin’s case, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in Beck’s), they both are retreating to the sidelines.
We’re early in Trump’s political career, so I offer these judgments cautiously, but my suspicion is that Trump, too, will burn out, like a hot fuse on a cold rocket. This may already have started. When President Obama took the stage last week in his stunner of a press conference to take on Trump’s birther attacks, he declared, “We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.” A hilarious tweet I received shortly after said that carnival barkers were protesting that the comparison with Trump was giving them a bad name. And, of course, the president easily made Trump look both inane and irrelevant when the coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death interrupted “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
There’s also a final thing Trump himself should remember, before he goes farther down what is likely a dead-end road to demagoguery: History remembers Joseph Welch’s famous question to McCarthy—“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”—as well as it remembers McCarthy himself. Trump has shown he doesn’t take criticism well, sending an angry retort to Vanity Fair and appearing openly thin-skinned after jokes were made at his expense at the White House Correspondents Dinner. He will likely realize soon, if he hasn’t already, that his brand, not to mention his ego, will not sustain the sort of historical thrashing that will inevitably follow any furthering of his demagogic aspirations. Indeed, in the end, The Donald’s self-love might just be his own best friend.
Michael Signer is Managing Principal of Madison Law & Strategy Group, PLLC and an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech. He was a 2009 candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia and chairs the New Dominion Project, a Virginia political action committee.
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