Resolute Square

The Perennial Problem of Demagogues

"The demagogue gains power by democratic means, claiming to be a champion of ‘the people’ and making wild promises...Anyone who opposes the demagogue is labeled an ‘enemy of the people’ and exiled or killed," writes Teri Kanefield.
Published:February 22, 2024

*Published with the generous permission of Teri Kanefield. Read all of her writing here.

By Teri Kanefield

Let’s Talk about Demagogues

The ancient Greeks gave us the word democracy. Demos means people, and cracy means to rule. The ancient Greeks understood the pitfalls of democracy so it’s no coincidence that they also gave us the word demagogery. Demagogue literally means a leader of the people but it has come to mean “a person, especially a political leader, who wins support by exciting the emotions of ordinary people rather than by having good or morally right ideas.”

Angie Hobbs, a professor at the University of Sheffield, offers Plato’s chilling account of how a democracy can be subverted by an opportunistic demagogue:

The demagogue gains power by democratic means, claiming to be a champion of ‘the people’ and making wild promises . . . Anyone who opposes the demagogue is labeled an ‘enemy of the people’ and exiled or killed. Such tactics naturally create genuine enemies, and the demagogue quickly acquires a large bodyguard, and eventually a private army. External conflicts are also stirred up to keep the people in need of a strong leader.

It is in the demagogue’s interests to keep his supporters poor as well as fearful. When they start to rebel, protesting that this is not why they voted him in, he attacks them too and the full-blooded tyrant is born.

Eli Merritt, a political historian at Vanderbilt University puts the matter more simply. Demagogues destroy democracies, he says. He calls this the “golden rule of democracies”:

The preservation of a healthy constitutional democracy in the United States in the coming decades hinges critically on whether Americans heed a golden rule of this free form of government as taught throughout the ages by democracy experts like Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Livy, Edward Gibbon, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln and especially the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

The drafters of our founding documents understood the golden rule, even though they didn’t call it that. In 1787, when the nation was in chaos because the Articles of Confederation were failing, George Washington wrote to Lafayette to express his fears that a demagogue would take advantage of the chaos to seize power:

The pressure of the public voice was so loud, I could not resist the call to a convention of the States which is to determine whether we are to have a Government of respectability under which life—liberty, and property secured to us, or whether we are to submit to one which may be the result of chance or the moment, springing perhaps from anarchy dictated perhaps by some aspiring demagogue who will not consult the interest of his Country so much as his own ambitious views. (Emphasis added)

Plato didn’t have much confidence in the ability of the people to withstand the power of a demagogue. By the time the Articles of Confederation were failing, the founders also seemed to be having doubts.

The demagogue either takes advantage of existing chaos or invents a problem and then offers a solution that benefits the demagogue. Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man demonstrates:

Friend, either you’re closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster
Indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community
Well, ya got trouble, my friend
Right here I say, trouble right here in River City.

Harold Hill’s solution to the problem he invented was for the people to buy what he was selling.

A “Pseudo Biography”

The rise of tyrants follows certain patterns. One is that they come to power by disseminating what is known as a pseudo biography.

The first known instance of this was a guy named Darius of Persia (522 BCE to 486 BCE) who carved the Behistun Inscription into the side of a cliff. If we believe the story he told about himself, he was descended from a long line of great kings. His kingdom was given to him by the supreme god Ahura Mazda. He defeated 19 armies in a single year, overthrew nine kings, and never lost a battle.

Trump also presented a pseudo biography that went like this: I am a successful businessman:

“I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far,” he said. “Nobody’s ever been more successful than me. I’m the most successful person ever to run. Ross Perot isn’t successful like me. Romney — I have a Gucci store that’s worth more than Romney.”

In 2015 and 2016, while running for president, he jetted around in a private plane and referred to himself as a billionaire.
During a debate before the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton told viewers that Trump actually paid no taxes. He said, “That makes me smart.” She pointed out the number of times he filed bankruptcy. He responded by bragging that he “used brilliantly” the laws of the country to his advantage.

The way he “used” the laws to avoid taxes wasn’t quite as brilliant as he thought. As you no doubt heard a judge found that Trump owes $355 million for having repeatedly defrauded the state. The amount is $450 million with prejudgment interest. This is on top of an $88 million judgment for sexually assaulting and then repeatedly defaming E. Jean Carroll. In addition, there are numerous other fines and penalties he owes. (Citizens for Ethics has been tracking his finances and says he does not have the cash on hand to pay these judgments or put up the money to appeal.)

When liars are caught, they pivot to new lies. Here is how Trump reacted to the latest verdict against him:

“This ‘decision’ is a Complete and Total SHAM. The Democrat Club-controlled Judge Engoron has already been reversed four times on this case, a shameful record, and he will be reversed again. We cannot let injustice stand, and will fight Crooked Joe Biden’s weaponized persecution at every step.”

“The Justice System in New York State, and America as a whole, is under assault by partisan, deluded, biased Judges and Prosecutors. Racist, Corrupt A.G. Tish James has been obsessed with “Getting Trump” for years, and used Crooked New York State Judge Engoron to get an illegal, unAmerican judgment against me, my family, and my tremendous business.”
In other words, he is still a successful businessman, but he’s so powerful and dangerous that he is the target of radical leftists and corrupt courts who are out to get him.

His followers, of course, believe it. One of his followers started a GoFundMe to raise money to pay his judgement. They see no contradiction in raising money to pay the judgment for a successful businessman who lives in gold-plated mansions and flies in private planes.

There are no quick fixes

This makes sense, right? If, since ancient times, wise people have understood that democracy has a treacherous pitfall, it is unlikely there is a quick fix. If you have a democracy (government by the people) you will have unscrupulous people trying to gain power for their own benefit or subvert democratic systems.

It isn’t clear what Brandy X. Lee means by “accountable.” It also isn’t clear which “people” she is referring to, but social media users who commented on the post understood her to be talking about Trump and the threat of right-wing extremism.

For years, in what we might call the MSNBC-CNN-left-leaning-social-media environment, a talking point has been that we have a problem with lawbreaking demagogues (the radicalized right-wing) because there have not been enough consequences or accountability. Generally what they mean is that there have not been enough criminal consequences (which is why this particular media bubble spent years heckling Merrick Garland and blaming him for the fact that the right-wing still poses a threat. For what I mean, see this post.)

No matter how long the list grew, people in this particular media ecosystem responded by saying things like “the consequences were not harsh enough” or “those are not real consequences.”

So I stopped updating the list and wrote this FAQ page explaining why the criminal justice system cannot solve a political problem and why criminal consequences will never put an end to the threat of right-wing extremism. Here I tried to explain why we can’t solve the problem of demagoguery by putting all the liars in jail.

The problem with any conspiracy thinking (“the evil is caused by nefarious actors who are refusing to hold Trump accountable either because they are weak or corrupt”) is that if we embrace conspiracy thinking, we fail to recognize the problem. If we don’t understand the problem, how can we address it?

The solution to the Firehose of Falsehood is not to debunk each lie. The solution is to put raincoats on the population* (and this is not easy)

*From the Rand Corporation.

Debunking each falsehood is like trying to put out a forest fire with a squirt gun. The solution instead is to teach people to see when someone is manipulating their emotions (or offering easy solutions to tricky problems, like “we just need to start holding people accountable.”)

Unspun Interview (transcript)

That’s why some university professors have taken up the task of teaching media literacy for a new generation. Prof. Amanda Sturgill, for example, hosts a podcast called Unspun to help listeners acquire the ability to think critically about the news. She offers real examples, past and present, of newsmakers attempting to mislead and manipulate the truth. The goal is to help people avoid being swayed by misinformation.

I spoke to Amanda last week on her podcast. I’ve edited the transcript for brevity. (Okay, yes, I left in the nice things she said about my book.)

AS: (Amanda Sturgill): I have Teri Kanefield here today to talk about her terrific upcoming new book, A Firehose of Falsehood. This book takes us through the origin of disinformation and does so in a unique way: in the form of a graphic novel. I would love it if you could tell me a little bit about the history of the book itself, what inspired you to tackle this subject, and why you chose the graphic novel format.

TK: I had no intention of writing a graphic novel!

A few years ago I came to believe that disinformation was the greatest threat to democracy. I started writing short pieces in various mainstream outlets. I wrote a piece for Slate Magazine on why Trump supporters believe all of his lies. I wrote a piece for The Washington Post about Trump’s rhetoric.

The editor of First Second Books at Macmillan approached me and asked me to write the text for a graphic novel. I said okay. Until that point, my only real connection with graphic novels was when my son was about 10 and I believe I single-handedly kept a graphic novel bookstore in business in San Francisco.

The illustrator of A Firehose of Falsehood was phenomenal — he did meticulous research and understood how to bring the text alive. I was impressed.

AS: I thought so, too. I thought the visuals were strong and wonderful.

One thing I thought was interesting was the development of the ideas through important moments in history. Why do you think the historical approach is important for understanding the moment we are in?

TK: History offers perspective and gives us a way of understanding the present.

When Trump first came to office, most people had no way of understanding why he was so outrageous and why his followers were so devoted. The more outrageous and shocking his behavior, and the more outrageous his lies, the more his followers liked him.

That’s still happening. People expected criminal indictments to crater his support, but the opposite happened: criminal indictments boosted his support. That’s because his appeal to his supporters is the way he lies and cheats. That’s counter-intuitive to people who are more inclined toward what we might call the democratic or rule-of-law way of thinking.

AS: Pretty early on in the book you introduce the idea of a concealed war. Can you please explain what that is?

TK: The idea of a concealed war can be traced back to the Mauryan Empire. Those in the Mauryan empire explained it this way: There are two kinds of wars, open war and concealed or silent wars. An open war is when two armies meet on the battlefield. Lines are drawn. Everybody knows there is a war.

A concealed war is what today we might call a disinformation campaign. The goal is to turn the people of the enemy country against their leaders, ideally so they attack and even assassinate their own leaders or crumble their own government. It’s a lot easier to get the citizens of your enemy country to attack their own government than for you to do it.

The idea was echoed by Hitler’s henchman Joseph Goebbels who said there are two ways to make a revolution: You can blast your enemy with machine guns until he acknowledges the superiority of those holding the machine guns or you can blast them with propaganda.

Dirty tricks in the spirit of a concealed war were the norm during the Cold War. Czech intelligence officers during the Cold War published a fake letter in an Eastern-bloc newspaper allegedly written by American businessman Rockefeller to president Eisenhower. The fake letter outlined a plan to use the American military to manipulate foreign countries. The fake story was picked by Western newspapers, who ran the story as if was true. Some Americans turned against their own government.

The campaign was so successful that Soviet disinformation operators followed up with a forged document that appeared to be written from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to President Eisenhower revealing that the “real, hidden objective” of American foreign policy in the Middle East was to “suppress Arab national independence” and “establish the US as the colonialist heir to France and Britain” in order to seize middle eastern oil.

AS:  You went on to talk about the story of Russian Empress Catherine the Great, where you introduced the idea of people lying to the leader. Do you think some of the information problems of today are related to that?

TK: Certainly. People lie to the leader to flatter the leader. People also lie to the leader because they have the same agenda and the lie they tell the leader serves the agenda. Sometimes autocrats get ideas for lies from their top supporters. A recent example would be the reporting that, on Election Night in November of 2020, a drunken Rudy Giuliani repeatedly urged Donald Trump to “just say we won” when clear Trump would lose.

AS: In the section on slavery you bring up the idea of using “experts” to dehumanize Black people. Using experts this way is relevant to Covid where experts were brought in to provide bad information. Here is what I wonder: In a modern context, say Covid or immigration, are the experts just lying, or is it something about the nature of experts themselves that leads to being easy to misunderstand or manipulate?

TK:I think both happen. The racism lie is still being told. There is a thing called “scientific racism.” I looked earlier and the Harvard Library has a resource page for confronting these theories. Basically these theories use fake scientific methods to prove that white people are superior.

AS: It also happens with media when people accuse media of not covering certain topics. We find ourselves in the era of calling things “Fake News”. What does history teach us about the effort to remove the respectability of the press?

TK: History teaches that autocratic regimes always shut down the press or seek to discredit the press.

One of the difficulties right now is that we are in an information disruption. New technologies like the printing press or the Internet flood people with more information than they know how to evaluate. As a result, traditional media is in a disruption and people don’t know how to find reliable information.

AS: As journalism is trying to figure out its funding model, we get into a situation where bad information is free, and good information costs money. It then gets more expensive as fewer people seek it out.

Do you see the attempt to devalue media and institutions on both the left and the right?

TK: What I see on the left is a bit different. When the left attacks the newspapers, they criticize reputable newspapers for sensational reporting or elevating views they think are dangerous.

The far right is deliberately seeking to put forward lies and undermine media to gain control.

AS: it’s easy for people to think that whatever side they agree with is doing everything right.

You called the book Firehose of Falsehoods, referring to the Rand Corporation study with that name. Is the issue of bad information a solvable problem?

TK:  One question is: Will people develop media literacy rapidly enough to sort out the garbage out there so they can hold on to truth quickly enough before the autocrats can tear everything down? It’s like a race. Will people become new-media savvy in time to rescue the truth?

Before law school, I taught college and university-level English. We taught students how to evaluate sources, but that was before the Internet, so it was simpler to distinguish reputable publications from disreputable ones. Consumers now need an entirely new orientation.

AS: What about government? Can we rely on the government, for example, to help? The government regulates the food that we eat, for example. Can they regulate the information we get?

TK: We have a First Amendment which specifically prevents the government from regulating information. But the government can help by better funding education.

The real solution has to come from citizens and communities. Putting too much power into the hands of the government to regulate information can backfire if bad actors gain control of the government.

AS: What about businesses?

TK: I wouldn’t rely on businesses to do what is right because they protect their own economic interests. But businesses often respond to pressure campaigns. Pressure campaigns have to originate in the community.

If democracy survives it will be because enough citizens step forward. After all, democracy literally means rule by the people.

* * *

Now that it’s primary time, JJ would like to demonstrate civic responsibility: