Faculty Journal Posted on Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The President as Demagogue

John R. Wallach Professor of Political Science, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center

The word “demagogue” carries inherently negative connotations today.   But “demagogue” did not always possess that meaning, and my discussion will not offer another skewering of the new American President. Instead, it interprets his likely presidential actions in his first 100 days as exercises in demagogic leadership that recast features of populist politics from the heights of government in potentially unconstitutional directions.

During his victorious campaigns for the Republican nomination for President and his national campaign for the Presidency itself, Donald Trump illustrated the traits of a pathological liar – about his opponents, the state of the American economy, its military and intelligence agencies, the actions of the Obama administration, ad nauseum. He avidly and unjustly maligned his opponents in order to win, and this continued in his Inaugural Address, invoking the worrisomely anachronistic slogan, “America First” (alluding to Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist Nazi-sympathizer group of the 1930s and 1940s). But the opponents he now seeks to vanquish are bigger. And while his power is now real, his popular support is the lowest of any incoming president since the days of polling – added to his loss of the popular vote to his chief opponent, Hillary Clinton, by three million votes. He has not changed his bullying behavior from his conduct as a businessman to adapt to the unique landscapes of national and world politics. In the office of president, this likely will lead to demagogic, if not dictatorial behavior. But what does this mean? And what might be its consequences?

To answer these questions, let us return to the meaning of demagogue. This English word stems from the ancient Greek word, demagogos, which literally meant “leader of the people [demos].” Like the Greek word, tyrannos, it initially carried neutral connotations. A tyrant did not follow legal norms, but in tradition-bound societies, this could be done for good or ill.[i] In the sixth century B. C. E., Peisistratid tyrants violated Athenian laws but also expanded the Athenian public realm. They were disliked for other misconduct and eventually murdered. In the wake of these tyrannicides hailed by the people, Kleisthenes acted unilaterally – i.e. tyrannically – with the backing of the demos to establish an institutional structure for Athenian democracy. Once the democracy was established, tyranny became worrisome and was regarded as the opposite of law and democracy (thus, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos). What about “demagogic” behavior? It was more difficult to discern. The Athenian democracy authorized no titular political leadership by means of elections. Only generals and, later, financial auditors (public officials who needed special skills) were elected, since the practice of elections was regarded as an oligarchic practice that validated the power of elites. A demagogue, therefore, was one who marshalled the demos as a following for policies with which they presumably agreed – since the demagogue had no direct power over them, it was not necessarily a bad thing.

Demagoguery, however, quickly became associated with dangerous political leadership in ancient Athens, manipulating the demos for personal advantage. The activity of marshalling votes in large numbers more readily appealed to the emotions of crowds than the reason of deliberate political actors. Even though Athenian democracy had fewer than 400,000 inhabitants and only 30-40,000 full citizens, culling a majority for votes in the sovereign Assembly meant refining a political message to satisfy a diverse citizenry. In his history of the Peloponnesian War (431-404), Thucydides referred to Cleon as a “demagogue,” because of his disregard for truthful political argument in public speeches (and, most likely, his role in promoting the exile of Thucydides). But Cleon did not always win, so his demagoguery reflected his reckless method of leadership more than the substance of his policies.[ii]

The Constitution of the United States was designed to thwart reckless leadership, in the manner of King George III or simply anti-Federalist and democratic sentiment in the States. Indeed, the American Constitution is notorious for the numerous “checks and balances” – between branches of the federal government and between the states and the federal government – so that it is very difficult for democratic majorities that are not politically entrenched to promote new policies. This situation generated space for serious, practical, political conflicts in the twentieth century, when the economic needs of ordinary citizens seemed to be systematically ignored by Congress, the courts, and the presidency. What is now called “populism” emerged as a political label. In the United States, a populist movement fueled by economically strapped farmers emerged at the turn of the century, and its power was mostly thwarted because of its alliance with white Southerners and, consequently, its racism. Disdaining potential allies among Southern blacks minimized populist clout at the polls. This populist movement had a successor during the 1930s in the person of Huey P. Long. He used radio to challenge President Franklin Roosevelt for being too close to anti-democratic capitalist interests, appealing over the heads of public officials to inspire a serious political movement. But he was assassinated in 1936.

In a recent notable book on populism, the Princeton professor Jan-Werner Mueller defined the soil in which it grows as the shadowy territory between citizens and their governmental representatives.[iii] Populism is marked by monolithic, intolerant, political rage that does not translate coherently into institutional governance. This is the soil that Donald Trump cultivated on his travels to the White House. But Mueller also importantly noted a major difference between populism and democracy. In its liberal, constitutional version, democracy abjures apartheid, requires respect for minorities and institutional governance, equal rights, and support for institutions that reflect the people’s power – whereas populism feeds on the resentment of the powerless. How then will Donald Trump use his populist base to govern, especially when his super-rich, cabinet appointees of little education and political experience (like that of the President) indicate endorsement of public policies that harm the interests of the many? He used traditional rhetoric to ally himself with the will of “the people,” but he is a minority president who has stacked his cabinet with individuals whose wealth places them clearly in the cohort of the 1%.   The Inaugural’s throw away lines referring to popular governance only reflect demagoguery since he is not turning power over to ordinary citizens – and if he decentralizes federal power, he is unlikely to insure that its effect will benefit “the people.” Coupled to his current approval ratings, if there is one thing that President Trump does not represent it’s “the people” – at least if understood in terms of democracy and not Italian fascism or the German racism of der Volk. .

Yet he also must confirm his campaign rhetoric and appease his supporters. He is unlikely to turn into a wilting flower with dissipating power – insofar as he railed against that fantasy of declining American power in his Inaugural. So how will he act as a Presidential demagogue, offering no outreach (as he did not in his Inaugural) to the Congress, the judiciary, the major political parties in the federal government, or other countries of the world. Will he resort to demagoguery via social media to override Constitutional limits, thereby becoming in deed if not in word a 21st century dictator? The multiples sources of institutional political power in the United States are not all likely to bend to Trump’s will. So what will he do? My guess is that Trump will issue a number of Executive Orders insist on rule changes in policy overseen by cabinet departments that override previous federal policies on immigration, climate change, and civil rights enforcement.[iv] But this power was judicially limited when Obama used it in the areas of voting rights and the environment. Thus, on his first day in office, he used an Executive Order to promote the repeal of portions of the Affordable Care Act and halt further enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, but these decrees are not legislation. And any concerted pursuit of undocumented immigrants or Muslim-Americans is not likely to work without the judiciary becoming supine or Congressional approval of billions of dollars to build a symbolic wall and harass Muslim-Americans as threats to national security (cf. the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II). Moreover, the President’s refusal to divest his business interests while President exposes him to Congressional investigations and efforts to impeach him. These are not likely to succeed, given Republican dominance in the Senate and House, but he is likely to press the limits of legal Presidential powers with many Executive Orders that will override actions that President Obama issued. They will make life harder for immigrants, workers, and the environment but better for business owners and the coal, oil, and gas industries.   In his first one hundred days, President Trump will appeal to his political base while skirting the law – not unlike how he has managed his family business.

The principal tools of demagogy available to the President, namely using “the people” to override or steer governmental power, may likely constrain him – because he does not have large popular support, has no governmental experience, and tends to insult anyone who disagrees with him. Donald Trump is no Adolf Hitler steeped in the success of a growing political movement in a decimated country – despite Trump’s effort to paint the United States as a country in dire distress. Nor is he an American version of Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian billionaire media magnate (whose Italian political tradition includes Hitler’s fascist ally, Benito Mussolini) and who was able to control the Italian public media while serving as the nation’s Prime Minister. Nor does he have a backlog of political or military experience. Nor is he well-educated. Nor does he have President Reagan’s charm.   So his previous political tactics that enabled him to “beat” hapless Republican opponents and eke out a victory in the Electoral College (aided by James Comey and whatever Russian hacking took place to smear Hillary Clinton) are not likely to be useful as President unless he actually acts in ways that enlarge his base of white working class voters who have been ignored by corporate and governmental elites, such as spending large amounts of taxpayer monies to rebuild the country’s public infrastructures without raising taxes or improving health care. But Congressional Republicans during President Obama’s presidency rejected his efforts to do the same. And despite his anti-Washington rhetoric, President Trump is notably relying on many multi-millionaires or billionaires (Commerce/Wilbur Ross; Education/Betty DaVos; Energy/Rick Perry; E.P.A. Administrator/ Scott Pruitt; Labor/Andrew Puzder; State/Rex Tillerson; Treasury/Steve Mnuchin) whose extant or previous economic involvements produce conflicts of interests; they are more likely to benefit their wealthy class-mates (in the 1%) than the aggrieved citizens who voted for Mr. Trump.

But his demagogic tendencies open other options, because of his distaste for limits (evidenced in his disrespect for others; disregard for truths about the state of the nation, the world, his own popularity, and so on). Won’t that fuel demagogic, if not dictatorial, tendencies? Simply put, the answer is yes. President Trump’s desire to overcome legal restraints in order to serve his view of the national interest may manifest itself most clearly in foreign policy where there are few Constitutional restraints. So expect actions on trade, which he can take unilaterally. Yet other countries are not likely to lie down and play with a President who degrades them. Moreover, countries are not business competitors. (Russia is a special case.) Expect here more smoke and mirrors about the effects of changes in trade on the economy than any substantial, economic up-tick for working classes hoping for an upsurge in manufacturing jobs. We already have seen that with his bluster about getting Carrier to alter its job structure so as to save a few thousand jobs while hundreds of thousands keep moving beyond American borders. Also likely is brinksmanship with Iran, a policy unlikely to garner much support.

President Trump’s modus operandi is likely to be demagoguery, manipulating popular sentiment and ignoring established institutions in order to remake America in his own image. It has served him well when the limits he would override are weak or plastic (e.g., the Republican Party; the print, electronic and social media providing feckless coverage of the presidential campaign; a politically tone-deaf opponent). But the institutional character of American government and its current openness to public opinion and popular protest have the potential to limit the power of a demagogic President. Yet many have underestimated the ability of this man to “win.”   So, for those who don’t like the President’s brand of demagoguery, know that its effects will be thwarted only if citizens and their representatives assume the mantle of leadership and political activism themselves to counter the unpredictable acts of the least prepared and most unreliable individual ever elevated to the presidency. What might diminish the dangers of demagogy practiced by our president may be what fueled his ascent: mean-spirited narcissism, political ignorance, and anti-democratic populism. The United States can blunt these dangers but only if politicians, civil servants, judges, and the general public dislike Trump’s brand of demagogy and defend the institutions that have preserved the American republic for its first 228 years. The gauge of this activism will be conservative, for it will be resisting challenges to America’s political traditions and constitutional order.

[i] A. Andrewes, The Greek Tyrants (London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1956), 7, etc.

[ii] M. I. Finley, “Athenian Demagogues,” in Democracy Ancient and Modern, revised edition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1985 [1962], 38-75.

[iii] Jan-Werner Mueller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

[iv] Although composed before January 22, 2017, this interpretation has been confirmed by the front-page/above-the-fold article in The New York Times by Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis indicating his plans to issue a slew of Executive Orders, get as much mileage out of them as possible, and hope for the best for accompanying legislation down the road.

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on the first 100 days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. To read the rest of the series, click here.


John R. Wallach is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College & The Graduate Center of The City University of New York and, currently, President of the Hunter College Faculty Delegate Assembly. He co-edited Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy (Cornell University Press, 1994) and is the sole author of The Platonic Political Art: A Study of Critical Reason and Democracy (Penn State Press, 2001). His most recent book is Democracy and Goodness: A Historicist Political Theory (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press, 2018). He also is a co-founder of the Hunter College Human Rights Program and was Director of the NEH Summer Institute: “Human Rights in Conflict: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.” He received his Ph.D. in Politics (Program in Political Philosophy) from Princeton University.