The Season for Demagogues

Wildly popular in the 1930s/1940s, demagogue is a resurgent occupation, lately.  The term demagogue has many different uses but, in the current climate, usually describes a political populist who is seeking to gain authority by exploiting the fears and prejudices of voters.

This is the kind of politician who rarely describes their vision in terms of opportunities; instead, they prefer to concentrate on demonising minority groups and other outsiders.

The foundation of their campaign is the identification of suitable scapegoats – people and groups to blame for the real or perceived woes of the community.  And, currently, demagogues are surging in polls across the Western world.

They are rising from the fringes in Europe, exploiting legitimate fears of terrorism and unfettered immigration, to push their own xenophobic, nationalistic agendas.

The ongoing Republican Presidential candidacy is a surreal display of rival demagogues competing to out do each other in their inflammatory proclamations.  The candidates strive to match the tone of their particular brand of fear mongering to the tune of the public’s anxieties.

But there is only one agitator – in a contest brimming with lunatics – successfully reaching deep into the well of America’s fears and frustrations: future President of the United States, Donald Trump.

The media generally wrote Trump off early in his campaign – he was perceived as nothing more than an entertaining sideshow.  Journalists were content to broadcast his incendiary statements without trepidation; after all, he was generating significant views and clicks. Still, no one was seriously picking him to resonate with any significant portion of the voting public. 

Likewise, the other Republican candidates have also underestimated Trump’s prowess.  Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were happy to sit back and watch on with glee as Trump savaged Jeb Bush – the early establishment favourite – with schoolyard insults.

When Bush meekly bowed out, Rubio and Cruz continued to view one another as the real competition. They began tripping over themselves to prove their staunch conservative credentials – such as their unwavering commitment to rounding up immigrants, shutting down evil family planning clinics and boldly professing their devotion to the blessed Lord Jesus.

Meanwhile, Trump blustered on – his orange hue glowing ever brighter. The other pretenders are trying in vain to get on Trump’s level of alarming rhetoric. But they are mere amateurs in this brave new world of nebulous policies and incessant browbeating.

Rubio and Cruz foolishly continue to employ some modicum of logic and detail to their policy plans.  Trump doesn’t have time for that kind of nonsense – substance is for establishment politicians.  Trump isn’t here to be a politician, he is here to make America great again. People who question the lack of detail in his plans are vile, untrustworthy, elitists – he thunders.  Trump’s adoring followers lap it all up.

Only recently have the other Republican aspirants started to band together to attack the property magnate, and former reality TV star.  But, as Super Tuesday demonstrated – it is likely too little too late.

Despite his astounding success, commentators continue to remark that Trump is nothing more than a stupid bully.

A bully, certainly, but his perceived stupidity is a clever simulation.  It takes exceptional skill to perfect the art of populism, as Karl Kraus mused, “The secret of the demagogue is to make himself as stupid as his audience so they believe they are clever as he.”

Trump is convincing large swathes of the American public that he is the answer to all of their problems, and he is doing it without articulating any substantive policy ideas.  His entire campaign is a series of rambling, outrageous – but carefully fashioned – commentaries on all the people and groups he believes are holding America back from greatness.

Immigrants, the scapegoat of convenience for demagogues throughout all of human history, are a primary focus for Trump.

He makes sweeping generalisations towards Mexican immigrants (his favoured term for all Latin Americans)  – labelling them as criminals, drug dealers and rapists.

Similarly, Trump latches on to a genuine issue of concern – extremist Islam – and casts aside any nuance by declaring that under his watch borders will close to all people of the Muslim faith.  Apart from being a hopeless strategy to stop extremists from getting into the country (presumably they do know how to lie) it also alienates Muslims already residing in America.

On the economic front, Trump constantly talks about making America great again and ‘winning’.  He doesn’t delve too much into his plans for economic prosperity or where he sees the best opportunities for growth.  Instead, he prefers to focus on combatting the nations that are hoodwinking America.  His favourite bogeyman in the economic space is China.  He talks about China a lot.  In fact, according to Trump, the Chinese are the biggest thieves in history .

Lest you thought he was a one trick pony, he has diversified his list of enemies to more than just ethnic groups – he vilifies establishment politicians, feminists, liberals, the elite, Wall Street traders, welfare dependents, the media, and so on.  In short, there is someone for every American to point a hateful accusatory finger at.

Does this uncanny ability to understand and connect with voters demonstrate empathy?  Of course not.  His views are frequently contradictory, but always just vague enough so that almost every average punter, except those he is attacking, is convinced he is on their level.  Astonishingly, he has even found some success among Latino Republican voters.

The world’s amusement at the spectacle of a self-promoting blowhard, sticking it to American politicians, has given way to the horrible sinking feeling that President Trump might become a reality.

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New Zealand tends to pick up world trends a little later than most.  So, will we ever see the rise of extreme populism here?

Don Brash, a demagogue of mild proportions, was almost successful – using his racially charged Orewa speech, and convenient welfare bashing, as a populist platform for National’s 2004 surge in the polls.  Thankfully, he was defeated, and is in exile from the political scene.  Although, he does pop up from time to time, stamping his feet and banging a pot, to remind us all that is still around, brooding and seething.

Winston Peter’s is a more enduring populist – he has made a career out of leveraging emotive issues for his own political gain.  He is the master of devising unrealistic policies that capture the public’s current sentiment, and which he knows he will never have to deliver.

But, is the New Zealand First leader a demagogue? Doubtful, and if he is, he is certainly a harmless one.

Winston is a likeable rogue who doesn’t even really want power.   Apart from a few ill-conceived forays into the establishment, he has perfected the art of just doing enough to hang around the edges as the enduring ‘keep the government honest’ maverick.

He can only maintain this shtick outside of power – if he ever gained control, he would face his worst nightmare: actually having to implement his disparate collection of populist policies.

However, it is the precedent he is setting, which is more concerning.  Winston’s usually harmless populist appeals do strike a chord with many New Zealanders, and show that there is some appetite for politics of this kind in New Zealand.

His legacy could well be laying the groundwork for a real demagogue.  A megalomaniac who claims to be taking up Winston’s mantle as a counter weight to the established political parties, but one who differs in their resolve – someone who actually craves power and who is willing to say and do anything to achieve their goals.

If Kraus, when describing the followers of a demagogue, was harsh, H.L. Mencken is even more contemptuous: “The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.”

It seems to be working in America. Could the New Zealand voting public be as susceptible to manipulation by a clever demagogue?

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