demagogue

How do you stop a demagogue? No easy answers

demagogueNow that the Electoral College has failed—not unexpectedly—in its wished-for mission to stop a demagogue from becoming President of the United States, we need to think more practically. Are there any techniques that have worked in other eras or in other democracies threatened by demagogues?

Unfortunately, reading up on the world history of demagogues, I’m finding very little comfort. As we enter this new period in American history, I’m looking for precedents that can give us hope and/or help guide us to a way—if not to oust him—to at least blunt Donald Trump’s power to permanently damage our country over the next four or eight years.

The answers can only be described as slim pickins. History offers few definitive strategies for derailing a demagogue. In fact, historians observe that democracy itself breeds demagogues.

What’s a demagogue?

Just to be clear, here are some definitions of demagogue.

… a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power. Dictionary.com

… a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. Merriam-Webster

…a political agitator who appeals with crude oratory to the prejudice and passions of the mob.  Collins English Dictionary

Another way to identity a demagogue by his/her campaign behavior, says Time magazine:

 If the would-be leader promises to give, restore, provide, insure, or enhance a country but never asks the citizens to sacrifice, pay, serve, or simply work, then this leader is a potential demagogue.

I think we can all essentially agree that Donald Trump fits all of these definitions and descriptions.

History lessons

History is not much help. On the depressing side, Michael Signer, of the University of Virginia says:

…The lesson of history with demagogues is they are as slippery as eels and they’re quicksilver and they’re chameleons…Different rules apply.”

Another observer has coined the term the “Demagogue Doom Loop.”  He describes it this way:

…The demagogue [creates] a vicious circle. More and more people have to be excluded, demonized, scape-goated, for the dwindling social product to be rationed out in stable increments to whomever is still included. This is the end.

The end. It is the doom loop of a civilized society. Once a society enters this phase, it cannot get out, short of war, revolution, or catastrophe — all of which bring sure ruin. There is no example in history of a society entering the Demagogue’s Doom Loop and stopping it before it is ruined.

You don’t have to dig very deep or be a serious historian to be able to point to 20th Century examples of demagogues who ruined their countries and/or hurt their own people. Argentina had Juan and Eva Peron [sometimes described as demagogues who were very entertaining while being dangerously undemocratic]. Zimbabwe is still ruled by Robert Mugabe. We are all aware that it took a world war to rid Italy, Germany and the rest of the world of Mussolini and Hitler.

And to war, revolution and economic catastrophe, we must unfortunately add assassination. Obviously, we don’t want those to be the solutions. None of those are acceptable paths to ending the rule of a demagogue. So, is that all there is?

Demagogues’ rise to power offers clues to possible end games, We have learned—and are learning once again in 2016—that demagogues thrive when we are cynical about truth, writes Michael Signer:

[Demagogues] …start to deflate when we put faith back again in public reason. The American people, in the end, always choose that demagogues are beneath them.  [Editor’s note: Except this time, apparently.]

…The original demagogue in Athens was named Cleon. Everybody thought he smelled bad. He was the son of a tanner, I think, and he was a general and he was sort of bombastic and vulgar. Vulgarity comes up a lot with demagogues. Their critics, who miss them, always think that they’re just beneath, but they win by being beneath because there is a level that they’re operating at that those critics – not only that they don’t like, they just don’t  understand, and that’s their glide path.

…the medium really is the message. When you give him the space to be an emotional entertainer, then he is winning that day, by definition.

…So I think that people need to shake him out of that mode with tough, demanding questions and by confronting vacuums of fact or policy where they are and highlighting threats to our constitutional principles. The media, when they say, well, I’m just being objective and I’m gonna just let him bluster on in my interview with him and not truly confront him because I’m being objective, it’s not being objective. It’s being a conspirator….

A hopeful example from the McCarthy era

As Sen. Joseph McCarthy ran rampant with accusation of communist infiltrators in the US, one Senator stood up to him and ultimately stopped him. Here’s a brief description what one courageous Senator did:

In 1954, Vermont Senator George Flanders introduced a resolution to censure McCarthy in the U.S. Senate. The resolution itemized 46 complaints. In the end, the Senate recommended censure on two counts: that McCarthy had obstructed a Senate subcommittee attempting to investigate him, and had denounced a fellow senator, “without reason or justification,” and acted in an “inexcusable” and “reprehensible “ manner toward a witness before his investigating committee. Eventually, that tactic worked, and McCarthy was discredited.

..Time Magazine called the outcome “a ringing reassertion of the U.S. Senate’s dignity,” and a “new landmark in U.S. government.”

Flanders later described his actions this way–in a statement we call could learn from::

“It became clear that in the outside world McCarthy was the United States and the United States was McCarthy.  The conviction grew that something must be done about him, even if I had to do it myself.”

As is often the case with nefarious individuals, the ultimate defeat was not for the big-name crime, but for less spectacular misbehaviors. [In a somewhat similar outcome, 1930’s crime kingpin Al Capone ultimately went to jail not for the many murders he ordered, but for tax evasion.]

Is this the path to defeating Trumpism? The answer is unclear. So far, his most egregious behaviors have been met with a resounding “ho-hum” by his apologists and staunch supporters. Latching on to the most recent outrageous development—and hoping that this is the one that will finally bring him down—is proving to be little more than an exercise in magical thinking.

Our best hope, I think, is vigilance, moral and ethical courage, and a commitment to actively resist anything that further erodes democracy in this country or endangers the world. It will take gumption and grit—and being present, both in mind and in body—to stand up to Trump’s inevitable misbehaviors, his flouting of law, and his dangerous policies. Democratic politicians need to think bigger than their next re-election campaign and find their calling in saving our democracy, not just their own power base. They need to stop being the party of nice–stand up, scream bloody murder, use every trick in the book—and some that may not yet have been invented—to block the damaging domestic and international moves that Trump and his minions are planning. The stakes are too high for “wait and see” and “can’t we all just get along.”.

One potential game-changer exists within Trump himself– hubris. That character flaw—so obvious in Trump—has been the downfall not just of Shakespearean protagonists, but of many powerful people. Maybe Trump will self-destruct. We—individual citizens, an awakened press, and new political leaders–should do everything we can to hasten that outcome by refusing to normalize behaviors that should clearly be unacceptable.

What can individuals do

History professor Timothy Snyder recently published a helpful list of guidelines for surviving in Trump’s America. Here are some of the practical steps that we all can take:

…Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

…Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Send more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media…

…Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

…Take responsibility for the face of the world.  Notices the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

Writing articles like this one is a form of resistance–the one where I am most comfortable. I plan to do a lot more of this. I encourage others to contribute your own thoughts on blogs, in letters to the editor, and on social media. You don’t have to write the definitive treatise on Trumpism or any single issue. You don’t have to be a history professor or the head of a social-justice organization to make your voice heard. Just make your presence and your outrage known by commenting on articles you read or things you have observed. Be sure to let your elected representatives–even Republicans!–know what you’re thinking. It’s not as scary as it sounds, and even the most cynical politicians know that voters voices count. We’ve all said–at various times in our lives–that we’re going to get more politically active. But it’s risky to put yourself on the line, right? This is the time to take that risk.

I’m going to add other forms of protest–less comfortable for me–to my own activities, as well: First up, the Women’s March on St. Louis on Jan. 21, 2017.

Who’s in?

Gloria Shur Bilchik Gloria Shur Bilchik (621 Posts)

Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of democratic values and progressive programs as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.


  • Sue Evans

    2,000 years ago Roman emperors (dictators with egos every bit as huge as Drumpf’s) found that panem et circenses — food and entertainment — kept the populace shutted up and blind to their machinations.

    How do we get a soft and comfy people fired up enough to do something?