The rise of Donald Trump has dominated media coverage during these early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump’s comments on illegal immigration, his call to bar Muslims from entering the U.S., his suggestion that we kill the families of terrorists, and his abrasive insults of both Republican rivals and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton—gaffes that, received wisdom holds, should have ended his candidacy––have only raised his poll numbers further, despite the vehement condemnation of Trump by Democrats and Republicans alike.
For some commentators, the rise of Donald Trump seems a novel development in American presidential politics. The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan called the presidential campaign a “year of wonders,” partly because of Trump’s improbable success. FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly said a potential Trump nomination would be “politics upside-down.” But as the antidemocratic tradition from ancient Greece to the American founding shows, the Trump phenomenon is democratic business-as-usual––and as dangerous.
Demagogues, the manipulators of the masses, exist only because political power is vested in the people. This revolutionary idea, which began among the city-states of ancient Greece, immediately provoked a critical response. How do we know the people are qualified to debate, deliberate, and vote on policy? Do they have the wisdom and virtue to know what policies will improve the state now and for the future? Critics like the Old Oligarch, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and others thought not. The average citizen lacks knowledge, is concerned with his own narrow interests, and cannot keep his passions from overwhelming his judgment. As such, the masses are like “a river swollen with winter rain: they rush blindly forward and sweep things before them,” as the historian Herodotus has a Persian critic of democracy put it. Given power, they will direct policy to their short-term interests and transient passions, endangering the state as a whole.
The founders of the American Constitution likewise worried about the ignorance and self-interest of the masses. John Adams commented that few ordinary people “were much read in the history, laws, or politics, even of their own, not to mention other states, from whose rises, revolutions, and declensions the great landmarks of legislation and government are taken.” New York’s Melancton Smith answered charges of preferring an oligarchical government by warning about “the unjust, the selfish, the unsocial feelings” that would overwhelm a more democratic government, one where “the vices, the infirmities, the passions of the people” would dominate. And during the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry attributed the political disorder in the state governments to “the excesses of democracy. The people do not want virtue; but are the dupes of pretended patriots,” and “are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men.”
Gerry’s last warning evokes the traditional criticism of democracy going back to Athens: that the people are prey to the machinations of “worthless demagogues,” as Aristotle called them, the office-holders and orators in the Assembly who manipulate and misuse language to inveigle the masses into pursuing policies the main beneficiary of which will be the politician.
In ancient Athens, one of the most notorious was Cleon, who after Pericles died in 429 B.C., rose to leadership in Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Opponents of Athenian direct democracy, like the comic poet Aristophanes, looked down on Cleon in part because his wealth came from tanning, a highly malodorous industry since urine was used to loosen the hair from the skins. Thucydides called him “the most powerful with The People” since he championed the interests of the poor against the rich. And Cleon’s rhetoric was as distasteful as the family business. In the Constitution of Athens, Cleon is said to be “the first to use unseemly shouting and coarse abuse on the Bema,” lowering the dignity of deliberation and debate.
So too today the political “establishment,” Republicans and Democrats alike, criticizes Donald Trump as a “demagogue.” Like Cleon, Trump’s wealth comes from déclassé enterprises like real estate deals and casino development. He too uses coarse language and personal attacks such as calling opponents and critics “scum,” “loser,” and “stupid,” even using a Yiddish vulgarity in some comments about Hillary Clinton. And critics explain his success with “the people” by noting his ability to pander to the disaffected average Republican voter, who is angry over the dysfunction in Washington, insecure economically, and fearful of terrorist attacks. The result is what many Republicans consider Trump’s ill-considered “baneful measures,” such as building a wall on our southern border, or “bombing the [expletive]” out of ISIS.
Yet implied in the criticism of the demagogue is the ancient distrust of the average voter’s intelligence or irrational passions. What else explains the average citizen’s vulnerability to the scheming demagogue’s duplicitous rhetoric? This underlying wariness of the people characterizes both parties. Barack Obama let this prejudice slip out in his 2008 presidential campaign when he spoke of some Americans as “bitter clingers” to “guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” We see this disdain as well in the standard Democratic charge that Republican voters are “anti-science” because they question liberal causes like apocalyptic climate change.
Republicans are not as shy about criticizing what talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh calls the “low-information voter.” But even the more cautious political leaders display the same distrust. As the Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn points out, Trump’s Republican critics, when they “respond by tut-tutting about how distasteful they find him—instead of showing why his argument is full of holes—they too come across as condescending, implicitly sharing the president’s belief that the knuckle-dragging American public just can’t handle the truth.”
The other traditional characteristic of the demagogue is his promise to the masses to redistribute the wealth of the better off whom the demagogue demonizes in order to curry the people’s support. According to Plutarch, Cleon was “rough and heavy against the upper classes and subjected himself to the masses in order to win their favor.” Cleon raised taxes on the rich, and increased the pay of jurors––a major entitlement for Athenian citizens––by a third.
This practice of the demagogue is obvious in the class-warfare rhetoric of Democrats, who use phrases like “one percent” and “fair share” to imply that the wealthy are unfairly gaming the economy at the expense of the people. Hillary Clinton’s campaign platform, for example, claims, “Our democracy should work for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected,” and “With near-record corporate profits and stagnant wages, the deck is stacked against working Americans.” Her solutions are essentially direct or indirect redistributionist government laws and programs––“investment” in “infrastructure” or “early learning,” for example. She also calls on companies “to share profits with their employees,” and the wealthiest to “pay their fair share” in order “to pay for her plan to make college affordable and refinance student debt.” Needless to say, all this largesse will be funded by the 2.4 percent of federal taxpayers who already pay about half of all federal income taxes.
Republicans, of course, also indulge in the same populist rhetoric. A common theme in the primary campaign has been attacks against the “Washington establishment” and “RINOs,” or Republicans In Name Only. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House John Boehner, before his retirement, were excoriated by many Republicans for being “inside the Beltway” elites more concerned with institutional perks and comity than with principle. Ex-governors running for president like Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, and Chris Christie exploit this animus against D.C. “insiders” and “consultants” who are insulated from the issues concerning the people. So too do Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump, who has promoted his business experience and success in the real world of accountability, profit, and loss as a corrective to the out-of-touch elites in Congress. Trump, for example, has boasted, “I have made the tough decisions, always with an eye toward the bottom line. Perhaps it’s time America was run like a business,” implying that the problems facing the country can be solved by the same techniques used in real estate and casino management.
This dynamic of “demagogues” and the “masses,” then, is not a novel dysfunction of today’s democracy, but an inevitable consequence that follows the political freedom and empowerment of large numbers of diverse peoples and factions. Getting elected to office requires that, at some level, no matter how camouflaged with the rhetoric of principle or technical expertise, substantial numbers of the people have to be flattered and bribed, their “passions and interests,” as James Madison put it, indulged and satisfied.
Equally timeless are the dangers of this dynamic, which explain why the Founders crafted a mixed government of balanced powers: It protected the freedom of both the masses and the elites. The people were empowered to elect directly just one house of Congress, with the remaining office-holders chosen indirectly by state legislatures or executive appointments confirmed by the Senate. In the last century, this Constitutional order has been altered. The Senate is now directly elected by the people, making it more democratic, and the Presidency has expanded its scope and powers far beyond the limits the Founders created in order to protect liberty from concentrated and centralized power.
This weakening of the Constitutional order has facilitated the “imperial presidency” that can easily become demagogic, if not tyrannical. Moreover, without the “filtrations,” as Madison called it, of indirect election, the demagogue has much greater opportunities for directly manipulating and bribing the people in order to gain power, unhampered by Constitutional checks and balances. Finally, the new communication technologies––cable news, blogs, daily polls, internet sites, tweets, and millions of cell phones that can instantly record words and images––have given demagogues tools much more powerful and effective than the public speeches and printed broadsides of the past.
Yet this danger does not mean that we are condemned to suffer the gloomy prediction of Fisher Ames, the late eighteenth-century antidemocratic Representative from Massachusetts: “A democracy is a volcano, which conceals the fiery elements of its own destruction.” Voters still have the right to vote, and millions in their daily lives demonstrate enough common sense and virtue to qualify them for choosing their leaders. The question is still open whether a critical mass of American voters fit the profile of the self-interested, irrational “masses” easily manipulated by demagogues. The electoral choices of 2016 may settle that question.