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Who Is a "Demagogue"?

In this heated political season, this is a frequently mentioned word.

We've repeatedly heard the term “demagogue” in the media and blogosphere, and in political discourse. So just who is a demagogue?

You know it refers to a charismatic political leader (or wannabe) whose vociferous words and outspoken opinions are persuasive to many people, but are found to be offensive or threatening by others.

Demagogues tend to be narcissistic and authoritarian, as well as brazen, bombastic and belligerent. Their vitriol appeals to the vulnerable and darker places in psyches and hearts. They fuel emotional fires in their zealous followers with sentiments of prejudice, bigotry, hate, hyper-patriotism and xenophobia.

While demagoguery is often “homegrown,” it is truly an international phenomenon: A few noted demagogues in the past century include Adolph Hitler (Germany), Joseph Stalin (Russia), Joseph McCarthy (USA), Pol Pot (Cambodia), Benito Mussolini (Italy), Sukarno (Indonesia), Mao Tse Tung (China), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), Juan Peron (Argentina), Roderido Duterto (Philippines), and Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan).

All these men were despots, but we should remember that most of them were voted into office! The angrier and more hateful the demagogues’ words, the more their popularity seems to soar among their acolytes.

Demagogues rail against imminent threats inside and outside their countries from enemies they blame for causing the national misfortunes. People are swayed to join their fiery campaigns against the “knaves and fools” who caused their own and societies' travails.

Demagogues’ strident opinions engender dark feelings like fear and anger in their followers, who are especially vulnerable during times of personal or social turmoil, or when they feel that they and their families are threatened.

Those most susceptible to the persuasive skills of demagogues often feel like “have-nots,” deprived and resentful at those who are more fortunate, particularly among the educated, wealthy and governing classes.

When passionate speeches promise to rid their country of enemies and simple solutions to their miseries, they are captivated and swayed. They believe the rhetoric, angry juices flow and passions are inflamed.

The fervent followers feel empowered, that they will finally get action on their behalf. The demagogue is seen as a veritable "savior" who will destroy their enemies and bring back the good “old values."

I cannot stress enough, however, that once committed to the demagogue, the vehement admirers feel better internally about themselves and their personal worlds. Their alienation and demoralization dissipate; their moods improve, they feel more optimistic and even that they are thinking more clearly.

Demagogues and their acolytes have been seen at various times and places in history. Young people in particular have been drawn to charismatic leaders of "isms" like cults, radical ideologies or even to violent militant organizations like ISIL.

In his seminal book, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," Richard Hofstader warned that demagogues eventually disappear, but the harm they do to citizens and society is often severe. (For fictional yet prescient depictions of America living under fascism, you could read Sinclair Lewis's "It Can't Happen Here" or Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America").

There are currently increasing numbers of extreme ultra-nationalist and fascist movements in countries in Europe and elsewhere. The United States has always had marginalized local extremists, but few have assumed important political office.

Given the nature of Donald Trump’s inflammatory and derogatory political and personal pronouncements, there is little doubt that he fulfills the criteria for being a demagogue. (“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck!”)

Americans can and will weather these raging storms of demagoguery, just as they have always done. Unfortunately, some people may get hurt by the collateral damage inflicted.

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