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.