Donald Trump has defied expectations, infuriated the political establishment, and inspired both awe and horror in the populace. He breaks all the rules. Yet history has always accounted for characters like him: that is, the demagogue. Brooke speaks with author and theorist Michael Signer about what makes a true demagogue and what history teaches us about dealing with them.
"Slim Jenkin's Place" by Booker T & the M.G.'s
BOB: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Seems that we have to figure out how to grapple with a demagogue. Don’t take my word for it. Search demagogue on Google News and you get...this...
Then you have demagogues like Trump coming along…
Trump is demagoguing and getting up and saying Obama’s gonna take your guns
Donald Trump, a demagogue with a soft spot for a dictator…
BROOKE: But Michael Signer, author of the book “Demagogue: The Fight To Save Democracy From Its Worst Enemies.” says a true demagogue must meet 19th century writer James Fenimore Cooper’s 4 criteria: 1 - they pose as a mirror for the masses. 2- they trigger great waves of emotion. 3 - they use that emotion for political gain, and 4 - they seek to break established rules for governance...
Cooper was by no means the earliest to fear demagogues...that worry dates back to the Ancient Greeks. Signer says it was also very much on the minds of the founding fathers.
SIGNER: There are several institutions that we have that are meant to protect us from the danger of demagogues. One of them is the US Senate. It was meant to be kind of a house for statesmen who would see it as their mission in their American public life to lead us kind of away from temptation and toward higher accomplishments.
BROOKE: Mhm. How did that work out?
SIGNER: You're right. I mean the senate is really not functioning anywhere as well as it was designed to be by the founders. Madison described the senate, the quote was "a necessary fence against fickleness and passion.
BROOKE: Which brings us to Donald Trump. Who you maintained for years was not technically a demagogue. And yet, just recently, you say that he is.
SIGNER: Two reasons: true demagogues posture as mirrors of the masses. His image was the man of golden skyscrapers and personal golf courses. And that changed when he started really trying to almost merge into this mass of angry, white voters --
TRUMP: They're not coming at me, they're coming at all of us. Because we have a noisy majority. They used to call it the quiet majority, people are fed up.
SIGNER: The second thing that's more concerning is that fourth rule of the demagogue - that they threaten or break established rules of governance. In the last weeks he has started stampeding across that boundary not only telling lies but we're an open society, so closing the country to people of one religion violates Americans constitutional tradition. And not only doesn't he seem to care, he seems to be doing what demagogues throughout history have done which is try to create a kind of state within the state of people who are accountable only to him. and he's setting the rules, and that's what demagogues do.
BROOKE: So how does one counter a demagogue?
SIGNER: They are slippery. And they're slippery because they have this lifeline to a mass of millions of people who love them.
TRUMP: I spoke in front of thousands of people last night, and when thousands of people couldn't get in they gave a standing ovation as soon as they heard it.
SIGNER: That said, the US Senate has really proven over time to be a natural place for confronting and diffusing a demagogue.
BROOKE: So give me an example of how the Senate countered a demagogue in the past.
SIGNER: Joseph McCarthy, he was a classic demagogue, and he had a very damaging run in our country but in the spring and the summer of 1954 in the US Senate, there was held what was called the Army McCarthy hearings, and over a period of weeks, he was systematically confronted. The peak was when an attorney named Joseph Welch said
BROOKE: Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
SIGNER: The millions of people that were watching had decided for themselves that this was no longer the kind of country and the kind of leader they wanted.
BROOKE: But let's say that McCarthy is running for president in 2015. Is he goin down?
SIGNER: He's not going down if the abdication of responsibility that we've seen from so many leaders in the rise of Trump is occurring.
BROOKE: So, if we can't rely on the Senate to fulfill one of the functions that the founding fathers hoped to build into that institution, how are the media to deal with Trump?
SIGNER: Not let him drive coverage toward areas that are purely self serving. You know, when I've watched a lot of interviews with him, these anchors have just let him run on and on. The real thing that needs to happen now is that men and women of conscience who are in leadership positions in this country need to take this on squarely not by lampooning him, not by playing into the entertainment shtick, but by calling Americans back to the basic values that are what we're proud of.
BROOKE: You say lampooning doesn't work?
SIGNER: My study of demagogues shows that satire does not work. The rules in the normal state are we value constitutional principles, we think about individuals in terms who they are individually, not stereotypes. In Trump world, none of those things matter so when you lampoon him or when you satirize him or when you call him a clown or a carnival barker, none of that matters because they're showmen, and they get how to agitate and connect with people in a way that ordinary mortals do not. So I think the thing is actually taking a demagogue seriously in their claims and educating the audience about how the demagogues claims and what they're doing actually hurts the country, so that requires a slightly different approach: it doesn't begin in this squawk of outrage, it doesn't start with a temperament that the demagogue has initiated.
BROOKE: You have to take him soberly and seriously.
SIGNER: And that's what the history of successful confrontation with demagogues has shown.
BROOKE: You are optimistic that the american people will overcome what you suggest could be an existential threat to the nation. Why? You're not going to invoke American exceptionalism, are you?
SIGNER: Ohh. I am. [laughs] I wasn't going to, but you got me. demagogues thrive when we're cynical about truth. They start to deflate when we put faith back again in public reason and if you look at the history, we have always prevailed. And it's not the checks and balances that we have, although the senate has played very important roles and so have a lot of great leaders, but it's because the American people in the end always choose that demagogues are beneath them. And I honestly believe that that's the process that's happening right now but these conversations have to be part of it. When the New york Times did a front page article on Monday analyzing every one of the 95,000 words that trump had spoken in this campaign showing that it was rife with division and deceit, that is important. The American people are smart, the Republican base is smart, and they can come to that decision on their own, but all Americans, all political leaders can help them make that decision, and that's where Trump just like past demagogues will ultimately fall.
BROOKE: Any other demagogues in this race?
SIGNER: You know I had come pretty close to concluding that Ted Cruz was trying to be a demagogue, he was threatening rules of governance. Countermanding the entire US Senate for his own agenda and shutting down the government.
BROOKE: I think the one place where he fails is that he doesn't trigger great waves of emotion!
SIGNER: I also think he has a difficulty coming across as a man of the common people, as an avatar for the masses, but he is trying very hard on both fronts.
BROOKE: Michael thank you very much.
SIGNER: Thanks so much for having me on, I really appreciate it.
BROOKE: Michael Signer is a political theorist and author based in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is also a Democratic member of the city council.