There is a conventional understanding of demagogues, represented in dictionary definitions, and much conventional understandings: a demagogue is a person who deliberately misleads the common people through appealing to emotions and prejudices. That isn’t what “demagogue” has always meant, and it’s a useless definition.
Explaining why it’s useless is complicated, and arguing why we should focus on demagoguery and not demagogues is also complicated, and that, in a nutshell, is why demagoguery works—thinking about what makes public deliberation effective is complicated, and people don’t like complications. Demagoguery says it’s all simple. Demagoguery says that we don’t have to engage in complicated, contingent, inclusive, and nuanced argumentation—instead, we can just ask who in this argument is good and who is bad, and follow the good people.
Demagoguery, at its base, says that you don’t have to worry about policies; you just worry about identity: is this person a member of the ingroup. If you’ve identified him/her as a member of the ingroup, you’re done. Then, deciding on a candidate becomes a question of who performs ingroup identify more.
So, people who are persuaded by demagoguery never see themselves as following demagoguery—they (we) think the outgroup (that party) is persuaded by demagoguery. We are persuaded by sweet reason. How do we know we’re right? Because we ask ourselves if we’re right. So, if the question is: is this person a demagogue? we are always starting with the wrong question.
If you look at situations in which communities have talked themselves into disastrous decisions (and that happens to be my scholarly area), and then, on getting information that their decision was bad, they recommitted, you see something else entirely. You don’t see a single demagogue leading people astray—you see a culture in which people are not supposed to argue inclusively about the best course of action; you see a culture in which compromise, inclusion, argumentation, and deliberation are rejected as effeminate, weak, and even evil ways of handling decision-making.
I study train wrecks in public deliberation, and I have come to believe that what matters is not whether an individual is a demagogue, but whether we are in a culture of demagoguery. In a culture of demagoguery, if an ingroup belief is that bunnies are good and squirrels are bad, then the entire election process becomes a question of who is more extreme in their support of bunnies and their attacks on squirrels. It doesn’t matter whether the policies about bunnies and squirrels are feasible in terms of costs and benefits, what their long-term consequences are, let alone whether there are any principles of fairness (that is, principles that operate across groups). What matters, in a culture of demagoguery, is whether the ingroup is being privileged.
Ingroup, in this sense, isn’t the most powerful group; it’s your group. Demagoguery works by insisting that your group is threatened with extermination—the situation of the ingroup is so dire that all considerations of fairness, due process, and rational deliberation are off the table. Demagoguery says that your gut feelings about people (whether they’re in your ingroup or not) are all you need to know—you can judge someone’s argument purely on the basis of whether s/he is in the ingroup. If what s/he is saying confirms your fundamental beliefs, s/he is objective; s/he is authentic.
In a culture of demagoguery, all issues are issues of identity.
However, in democracy, identity don’t count for shit.
What matters in democracy is policy. And good policy is hammered out through an inclusive process in which various points of view are considered. Coming to a good decision is not just a question of how loyal you are to the ingroup—it’s about a policy that is feasible, solves the problems, and doesn’t cost more than it benefits the community (all the groups) as a whole over the long term. Democratic deliberation is about uncertainty, contingency, listening, compromising, and looking at things from various perspectives. It’s about acknowledging that no single group has the right answer. And demagoguery is about saying all that can be ignored in favor of whether this person is really, really, really passionate about the ingroup. Demagoguery and democracy are entirely at odds.
Trump’s policies are unreasonable, irrational, implausible, and not even a little bit feasible. And his whole argument is not about those policies—it’s about his identity. His appeal is that he presents himself as the sort of person who, through sheer force of will, will make good things happen—things that are unreasonable, implausible, and not even a little bit feasible. That his policies are irrational is the attraction. And by “irrational” I don’t mean “emotional.” Being emotional and being rational aren’t opposed. Policies fueled by compassion, fear for the future, desire for a good life—that’s how democratic deliberation must work. Emotions must be part of how we argue. Feelings and reason are not opposed—they are integrally connected.
The problem with Trump’s method of argument isn’t that it’s about feelings; it’s about which feelings, and for whom. A basic premise of his method of participating in public discourse is that all the good feelings (compassion, concern) should be reserved for the ingroup, and all the negative feelings (fear, loathing, disgust) are for outgroups.
A basic principle of democratic deliberation is that rules apply across groups. A basic principle of demagoguery is that all the good feelings (compassion, concern, affection, respect) apply only within the ingroup, and the outgroup is treated as an inherently adversarial enemy.
Is Trump a demagogue? That’s the wrong question, because it’s still about identity. Does he engage in demagoguery? Hellz yeah.