Victor Davis Hanson: The Demagogic Style

Roundup: Historians' Take

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institutionthe editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

The noun dêmagôgos first appeared in Thucydides’ history, mostly in a neutral, only slight disparaging way (usually in reference to the obstreperous Cleon), in its literal sense of “leader of the people.”

But very soon — in later fifth- and fourth-century authors (e.g., Aristophanes, Xenophon, Aristotle, the Attic orators) — both the concrete and the abstract nouns (demagogue and demagogy/demagoguery) and the verb (to demagogue) became ever more pejorative, describing crass popular leaders who alternately flattered and incited the masses (ochlos). Their trick was to obtain and expand their own personal power by clever rhetoric directed against the better off, coupled with promises of more entitlements for the “poor” paid for by a demonized “them.”

We often associate demagoguery in the U.S. with wild right-wing nationalists or cultural chauvinists, such as Joe McCarthy or Father Coughlin, or with folksy Southern “spread-the-wealth” populists, such as William Jennings Bryan (“The Great Commoner”) or Huey Long. And, of course, abroad there were no better demagogues than Mussolini and Hitler, who both started out as national socialists and then united the classes by transferring class hatred onto foreign bogeymen, in a fashion we later see most effectively in Juan and Eva Perón.

Demagoguery, at its best, requires good oratory and charisma — which is why Jimmy Carter was such a dismal failure at it, despite his half-hearted demonization of three-martini lunches and private yachts at a time of a record misery index that saw high unemployment, out-of-control inflation, and usurious interest rates, coupled with a neutralist foreign policy that had led to Russians in Afghanistan, Communist takeovers in Central America, and American hostages in Teheran. Carter’s mock-serious delivery was so droll, his presence so wooden, that his fist-pounding against “them” turned into caricature.

Under a more skilled practitioner such as Barack Obama, the arts of demagoguery have become somewhat more refined in our time, but they nevertheless follow the same old patterns...

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