"Demagogue" on the rise?
Is the torrent of worry about "Donald the dangerous" merely a more liberal exaggeration? Or is this chorus of concern about the disastrous consequences of a Trump victory justified?
Although I can't claim to be objective, I can offer a perspective that predates this crazy election. 10 years ago I described in detail a leadership style called "the demagogue." It was based on a careful analysis of leaders who, when faced with a crisis, made it worse. The consequences of their leadership were extremism, violence and in the worst cases, war and genocide.
Because the stakes are so high in this election year, it's worth taking a close look at the traits of the demagogue. Although I outlined them a decade ago in my book Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences Into Opportunities published by Harvard Business School Press, they are frighteningly relevant today.
Here is how I outlined the ten attributes of the demagogue in 2006:
- Distorts the truth
- Dehumanizes adversaries
- Intensifies existing conflicts
- Sees only their own "side"
- Lacks basic compassion
- Seeks obedience
- Views him/herself as superior
- Relies on ideology, not experience
- Unable to deal with complexity
- Destroys bridges between groups
Having closely analyzed the candidates' speeches, political ads and debate performances in the unfolding 2016 election, I am struck by how much more prevalent these dangerous qualities of leadership are in this election year than in any I can remember.
As we review these 10 qualities of the demagogue, many leaders come to mind. Many of the candidates, for example, having begun to "dehumanize adversaries," mocking and insulting and demeaning their opponents with intensely personal attacks. A number of presidential contenders on both parties have also shown a strong allergy to complexity, reducing complex economic policy issues to "breaking up the big banks" or claiming that "erasing state lines" will solve our healthcare crisis. Similarly, there have been numerous instances in almost every presidential debate of "distorting the truth" and astonishingly callous examples of "lacking compassion."
But then I asked myself, on the current political scene, who is the leader who most closely resembles the demagogue? Does any candidate actually get a perfect score?
This question matters because nothing makes a bad situation worse than when a demagogue becomes the leader of a nation and that nation's military. The obvious example is Adolf Hitler, who killed himself rather than face the terrible toll of his twisted and tormented "leadership." But his second-in-command, Hermann Goering, lived long enough to unpack the strategy by which archetypal demagogues like his boss can take a great nation and turn into a perpetrator of genocide.
In his prison cell in Nuremberg, Germany, speaking to a psychiatrist, he explained with remarkable frankness one of the favorite and most effective demagogic strategies. When a leader wants to use violence or go to war, Goering said, "it is always a simple matter to drag the people along. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
So let's take a second, even closer look at the 10 traits of the demagogue. Do either of the party's leading candidates, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, perfectly fit the archetype of the demagogue?
I have read the most devastating books about former Secretary of State Clinton, and even watched the infamous film that attacks her character that led to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. But even if one takes these ferocious assaults on Clinton seriously, she does not get a perfect score. A veteran policy wonk who spends endless hours in the policy weeds, she cannot be described as avoiding "complexity." In fact, aides had to train her to speak more simply so that she did not lose her audience. Similarly, she relied so heavily on her decades of "experience" in government that she was coached to tone it down. As even her harshest and most ruthless critics, Hillary Clinton does not fit the 10 characteristics of a demagogue.
Donald Trump, however, is a candidate with the potential for a perfect score. Despite a career in politics that is so short that it can be measured in months, not years, he has managed with remarkable speed to exhibit many, if not all, of the markings of a demagogue.
While countless incidents in the campaign could be cited as evidence of his demagogic mastery, none so vividly captures several of these traits than his reaction to learning that one of his lawyers told a reporter for Vanity Fair: "Donald is a believer in the big-lie theory. If you say something again and again, people will believe you."
When the reporter then asked Trump about it, he didn't deny it. Instead, he got angry.
"One of my lawyers said that?" Trump asked. "I'd like to know who it is, because I'd fire his ass. I'd like to find out who the scumbag is!"
But don't take my word for it. Take your own inventory of Mr. Trump's style. According to my calculations, he gets a perfect score on the demagogue scale. Governor Rick Perry of Texas seems to have reached that very conclusion when he said that Trump is not about conservatism, but about "Trumpism," which he defined as a mixture of "demagoguery" and "nonsense". Furthermore, recent research suggests that the one trait that most accurately characterizes Trump's ardent supporters is "authoritarianism," a tendency that historically coincides with the most notorious episodes of demagoguery.
So the alarm is ringing, America. When a leading political candidate for president gets a perfect score on the demagogue scale, it's time to wake up.
Mark Gerzon, President of Mediators Foundation, is the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.