While the criteria for identifying a genuine demagogue vary, what I have in mind is a political leader who appeals to emotions rather than reason and to people’s fears and prejudices. There is often the targeting of the “out-group.” Relying on personal charisma, a demagogue typically exploits situations to intensify popular support, thrives by creating divisions and seeks to manipulate the masses. Contradictions and false statements are overlooked and excused. For the demagogue, the problems we face are simple to solve, if the right leader is given the reins of power. All this creates a powerful bond with his followers, who prize “authenticity” over careful arguments and view the leader in nearly mystical terms.
It’s worth noting here that the demagogue, the embodiment of anti-reason, is what the American founders feared. Indeed, the founders designed a system of government – checks and balances, separation of powers – that was meant to prevent the rise of demagogues. It is a recurrent concern in The Federalist Papers, and, in fact is mentioned in the very first one.
In Federalist #71, Alexander Hamilton defends the four-year presidential term on the grounds that it will allow the chief executive to counteract the “sudden breeze of passion” of the people. The argument was the president should not simply be responsive to popular will; instead, he would have some distance from temporary enthusiasms. The purpose was to refine rather than incite public opinion. As Hamilton put it, “The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse that the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests.” (Sound familiar?)
In Federalist #10, James Madison distinguishes between a democracy and a republic, with the goal of a republic to “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” (I recommend this articlein The Atlantic by the Madison biographer Michael Signer, which distinguishes between benevolent and selfish passions.)
Time and again the founders argued for the need “for more cool and sedate reflection.” They spoke about the danger of passion wresting the sceptre from reason. And it is Mr. Trump’s assault on reason, combined with his demagogic tendencies, that most troubles me.