Are you as unnerved as I am by the rise of demagogues
around the world – leaders who gain popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the people, whipping up passions and shutting down reasoned debate, who overturn established customs of political conduct, or threaten to do so? Commentators often use ‘rabble-rouser’ or ‘leader of the mob’, as colloquial equivalents.
Today, there is no more observable demagogue than Donald Trump.
Writing in Vox
earlier this month, Laura McGann and Starvos Agorakis had this to say in their article: The desperate demagogue – Trump has no choice but to escalate
President Donald Trump’s closing argument for the 2018 midterm elections represents a dangerous escalation of demagogic rhetoric. If it works, things are only going to get worse.
During his presidential campaign, Trump shocked the media and half of the country by declaring Mexicans rapists and outlining an isolationist vision for America. He also covertly sent an “us versus them” message cloaked in the rhetoric of jobs and the economy…
It was a promise to his white supporters that he would put them ahead of other groups, like racial and religious minorities and immigrants – the very definition of demagogic politics.
This year, Trump doesn’t bother with fig leaves. He smears minority groups, particularly immigrants, with impunity. This week alone, he made comments, sent tweets, and unveiled policies (some real and some fake) all designed to further dehumanize and demonize his scapegoats.
Further on, McGann and Agorakis explain the thinking and motivation of demagogues: Trump’s actions
…looked erratic or even desperate, an irrational response to the reality that Republicans continue to trail in the generic ballot days before the election. It might be desperate, but it’s not irrational. Trump has a good reason to act as he has. It’s his most effective political strategy. And it’s a strategy that demagogues know has to keep ratcheting up to work. And if he’s not stopped now, he’ll only get worse.
“Every demagogue acts voluntarily and through choices. They are not how they are painted; they are not creatures of their own appetite, irrational and out of control,” said Michael Signer, a professor at the University of Virginia who has written extensively on demagogues. “They tend to be extremely opportunistic and shameless and ruthless political actors.”
You will not need reminding of the terms that Trump has used to describe ‘illegal immigrants’. When he authorized the separation of children from families, he insisted that these people were ‘infesting’ America, a term traditionally used to describe pests. He said that Democrats were to blame. “They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13”
, a violent criminal gang based in Central America.
Referring to the ‘Caravan’ currently headed through Mexico towards the US, Trump tweeted ”Many gang members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border. Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”
Robert Bowers, the alleged murderer in the synagogue shooting, posted similar comments about the Caravan on Gab
, a social media platform that gives voice to white supremacists. In one post, Bowers wrote, “I have noticed a change in people saying ‘illegals’ that now say ‘invaders.’ I like this.” The company Trump keeps!
There is no end to the exaggerated rhethoric. Trump’s media supporters now claim that the Caravan is a health threat to American children
, bringing to the US tuberculosis, leprosy, and even smallpox, a disease eliminated from the world in 1980! Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, reports that Trump said that black people were too stupid to vote for him during the 2016 election
McGann and Agorakis point out that Trump’s message is growing increasingly extreme, but like all demagogues, he has no choice but to continue to ratchet up his worst words and worst behaviour. Although the media see his behaviour as aberrant, his supporters see exactly what they want to see; they believe his line that he’s not
responsible for extreme rhetoric in politics or a sense of division in American life. They don’t support him in spite
of his behaviour; they support him because of it.
A recent poll found that 80 percent of Republicans agree with Trump’s recent claim that the national media has done more to divide than unite the country since Trump took office. A Gallup poll showed that 89% approved of the job he’s doing.
Although many of us question Trump’s rationality, McGann and Agorakis believe Trump knew exactly what he was doing - stirring up emotions among his supporters ahead of the mid-term elections in order to get them out to vote for Republican candidates in an effort to maintain control of the legislature.
Social psychology provides an explanation for such demagogic behaviour. It is termed: The out-group homogeneity effect.
It is the perception that members of other groups are more similar to one another than are members of our own group: "They are alike; we are diverse".
How many times have you heard: ”Muslims are all the same”
, or ”Immigrants are all the same”
, or ”Boat people are all the same”, coming here illegally, taking our jobs, taking our houses, bludging on our social welfare.”
In contrast, how many times have you heard: ”Aussies are all the same?”
No, we’re different – diverse, adaptable, hard-working, socially responsible, generous, altogether good fellows ready to give our mates a leg up!
Demagogues exploit the out-group homogeneity effect to foster antagonism
. It has been found among a wide variety of different social groups, from political and racial groups to age and gender groups. Thus, out-group judgments are overestimated, supporting the view that out-group stereotypes are overgeneralizations. Some social researchers view the homogeneity effect as an example of cognitive bias and error, while other researchers view the effect as an example of normal and often adaptive behaviour.
Stepping back from Trump, Putin and Kim Jong-un – the Mega-Demagogues – we can recognise many others. The election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil
marks a new stage of the rightwards slide to fascism and its demagoguery. A frightening number of alt-right players are emerging in Europe: Alexander Gauland
, head of Germany's far-right, nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary; Heinz-Christian Strache, deputy prime minister of Austria; Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of Poland’s governing party; Janez Janša, leader of Slovenia’s largest party; Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s junior governing party; and Marine le Pen, runner-up in the French presidential election, are some of them. Do read what policies they have in mind for their countries!
They bring with them their own style of demagoguery. It should make us all fearful.
Year after year, we are witnessing the relentless march of the demagogues. Their influence extends inexorably. It will not stop.
We must be alert. We should be very alarmed.
The world is in peril. They are a danger to us all - now.