One thing you have to say about Donald Trump: he is a brilliant demagogue,* perhaps the most effective demagogue, on a national level, we have ever seen in this country. I’ve been scratching my head, and haven’t been able to think of anyone quite like him in our history. Arguably the most successful demagogue ever was Ronald Reagan, who made effective use of coded appeals to people’s bigotry (welfare queens and young bucks buying steaks with food stamps, etc). And, like Trump, Reagan had no inhibitions about making up “facts’ to support his arguments.   But, apart from differences in style–Reagan was far more subtle than Trump– Reagan wasn’t just a demagogue; he employed his demagoguery in the service of a fairly consistent and coherent ideology, to which he was passionately dedicated. Trump by contrast is an ideological eclectic; he tailors his positions to his keen sense of what his audience wants to hear. He is a pure demagogue.

Much of Trump’s appeal lies in his refusal to be inhibited by the norms of civility that constrain most politicians. People like that he is willing to say, and constantly does say, outrageous and offensive things. Politicians don’t talk like that, which means that Trump is not just another self-serving, mealy-mouthed politician–he is obviously telling it like it is! Of course, it’s also easier to say outrageous things if you are not particularly concerned about whether what you are saying is actually true. Trump knows that for his audience, truth is whatever it is they want to hear. Most notably, Trump’s litany of complaints about immigrants is mostly misleading or downright false, but hey, who’s fact-checking?

Successful demagoguery reflects a failure in the political system.   A significant portion of Republican voters—and not just Republicans—feel that their political leaders don’t really care much about them, that they are more responsive to special interests than to ordinary citizens.   That happens to be essentially correct, and it provides an opening for a brilliant demagogue like Trump.



*I define a demagogue as a politician or other public figure who bases his appeal very heavily on exploiting people’s prejudices and ignorance.



  1. John Duggan August 20, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Interesting Tony. Thanks.

  2. Jeffrey Tannenbaum August 20, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    As a New Yorker writer, among others, has observed, Trump resembles P.T. Barnum, who relied on “humbug” –or putting on glittering apperances — to attract attention. In terms of policy, there is little that Trump has offered. But Paul Krugman argued that Trump is the only Republican presidential candidate who has not bashed Social Security. Even if by accident, he has some merits in that arena.

  3. Elliot Linzer August 20, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    Don’t forget Huey Long and George Wallace. According to his widow, Wallace started off as a New Deal Liberal, then became a rabid segregationist for opportunistic reasons, then shifted sides again before he died. In the 1968 primaries, Wallace got more votes than any other Democratic candidate (Johnson got 0, Humphrey got 0).

  4. Judy Brown August 20, 2015 at 9:27 pm

    “Successful demagoguery reflects a failure in the political system.”
    Absolutely agree…and with the rest of your analysis as well. I tend to think we as a nation have reached this vulnerable state and so I personally find Trump the Strongman rather alarming. David Ignatius in the Wa Post yesterday compared him to Putin, others to the very far left making even more dire comparisons to figures of WWII. Trump’s primary themes of nationalism and demonization of immigrants plus his general tactics of control ( as opposed to
    compromise or debate) do evoke the tools of fascism, rather than those of democracy. Sorry I sense it’s not PC to use that particular f word–but is it wrong?
    My mind also goes to hugely successful manipulative phenomenons like Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Bernie Madoff, etc. It’s a fraudulent Pied Piper personality type. There’s an PhD psychologist, George K. Simon, who proposes an interesting theory about the type in his book “In Sheep’s Clothing”. He asserts that such people are motivated entirely by “winning”. They are completely unmotivated by things those of us on
    the more normal, principled, side of the spectrum think
    about, such as truth, ethics, fairness, concern for well being of others, etc. Such people seek to control and manipulate others, always. His website “Manipulative People” has a lot of articles about his experiences with treating and understanding such people and their dysfunctional relationships in his long-time practice. Just throwing it out there, as an idea from a psychological point of view.

    I continue to very
    much enjoy reading your take on current events here. Appreciate your intelligent, rational analysis and your admirable restraint! 🙂

  5. Jeffrey Herrmann August 21, 2015 at 4:05 am

    It is not just that Trump’s admirers feel mainstream politicians don’t care about them. It’s that they feel their own “victimhood” — however imaginary — is not being acknowledged and redressed. Trump promises them fantasy solutions, and like the suckers P T Barnum exploited, they believe because they want to believe.
    Dana Milband recently observed, correctly, that Trump is hitting all the Repugnican [my word] erroneous zones and therefore cannot be said not to be one of them. Until Trump forced the issue, mainstream media largely avoided reporting on this well of ugliness comprising a large part of the Repugnican Party.
    A cautionary note in thinking about what this all means for the election: not a single national pundit predicted anything like the rise of Trumpophilia. So, don’t swallow any of the current forecasts of Trump’s impact without a big dose of skepticism to wash it down. More electoral surprises will more probably happen than not.

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