Demagogue for President: Book Review

Dangerous demagogues like Donald Trump have no power in a properly functioning democracy (L 4608).

Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump (2020), Jennifer Mercieca. Trump is both hero and villain in this analysis, a hero for using (or misusing) rhetoric to excite a large chunk of voters to elect a demagogue. Much of this comes out of the Mein Kampf playbook, updated for social media. (Granted, it’s similar to the Putin playbook, but Hitler put it in writing). I identified Trump as a clone of PT Barnum and Benito Mussolini, the showman/fascist, while Merceica described the Barnum connection and used Hitler as the fascist connection. This proved to be effective in our current dysfunctional political culture. At the end, authoritarianism is described to show a somewhat alternative analysis of Trump’s demagogic evil genius. It should be pointed out, this analysis is based on Trump running for president, not his talk or actions as president.

One of the frustrating parts of reading/reviewing a Trump book is that there are so many, seemingly a hundred or so already; perhaps on the way to thousands and rivaling the number written on Shakespeare. Unfortunately, to get a complete analysis of the Trump effects, many more of these books will have to be tackled.

Introduction: Rhetoric

The Introduction defines Mercieca’s use of rhetoric, which is critical to understanding the rest of the book. “Trump’s announcement was successful in gaining him attention, if not universal respect. … Trump’s message of making America great again by protecting the nation’s borders, rejecting political correctness, and fighting corruption resonated with some Americans on the day of his announcement. Eventually that message would win him the presidency, so why was it so difficult for political pundits and reporters to take Trump’s presidential campaign seriously on the day of his announcement … he didn’t sound presidential. … Perhaps the pundits simply did not understand Trump’s rhetorical strategy, which makes much more sense in retrospect. Trump’s unpresidential speech was designed to appeal to the distrusting, polarized and frustrated Americans who desired a change in leadership” (L 232). “His vulgarity was his appeal because it enabled him to appear as an authentic truth teller—what the ancient Greeks called parrhesia, ‘the one who speaks the truth.’ … Ironically, when the establishment media mocked Trump, it only proved the validity of his outsider status” (L 247).

“Politico’s Jack Shafer called Trump a demagogue for ‘crimes against logic, his pandering to the uninformed, and his manipulative emotionalism. … USA Today called Trump a demagogue for being erratic, ill-equipped to be commander in chief, trafficking in prejudice, having a checkered business career, not leveling with the American people, speaking recklessly, coarsening the national dialogue, and being a serial liar” (L 276).

“A demagogue … is technically understood … as a leader of the people. Demagoguery is a way of communicating. It also has a negative connotation” (L 298). Ancient Greeks claimed a truth teller had a duty to improve or help people, with five elements of fearless speech: frankness, danger (speak truth despite personal risk), criticizing those in power, and duty; key elements were authenticity and risk. Was Trump a truth teller? “He practiced criticism by condemning politicians, media, other nations, immigrants and protesters” (L 318): low-energy Jeb, little Marco, Lyin Ted, crooked Hillary. Fact checkers were kept busy, Trump called them liars. “No one should be surprised about Trump’s success during the Republican primary, [Matt] Taibbi wrote, because everything he’s saying about his GOP opponents is true … just robo-babbling representatives of unseen donors (L 331). His supporters described Trump as a truth-teller, partly because of the success of the Apprentice, which called Trump a “pop-cultural truth-teller”—a made-for-TV fiction: “truthful hyperbole;” ghostwriter Tony Schwartz invented to term “artful euphemism”—a lie, but who cares? Lying works. “Trump is probably a marketing genius; he is, essentially, whatever he can convince us to believe that he is” (p. 380). I’m not sure conman, artful truth-teller and demagogue are synonymous but all apply to Trump.

The negative definition of a demagogue is: “a leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests” (L 400). Aristotle thought democracy was the best government for the poor, which meant he opposed it. Demagogues seemed to be a thing after Pericles died in 429 BC (by plague). The problem is accountability and transparency: “an unaccountable leader is dangerous in any political community” (L 424).

“Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain in their book How Democracies Die, democratic governments historically have been overturned by authoritarian or unaccountable leaders like Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. Those unaccountable leaders (1) rejected or showed a weak commitment to democratic rules; (2) denied the legitimacy of political opponents; (3) tolerated or encouraged violence; and (4) were ready to curtail the civil liberties of opponents and the media” (L 430).

“Persuasion is democratic; it requires consent. Compliance is authoritarian; it is a kind of force. Scholars of rhetoric, argument, and logic have well-developed tools for understanding how to persuade without manipulation. I think of rhetoric as Aristotle did—as a method of decision making leading to practical wisdom. … Rhetoric is a meeting of the minds that invites people to change their opinions. … Dangerous demagogues do not use rhetoric to persuade; they use rhetoric to gain compliance. … Weaponizing rhetoric is a deliberate and knowing deviation from assumed norms” (L 438). “Dangerous demagoguery is itself an escape from the responsibilities of rhetoric because it relies on polarization to simplify public debate into in-group/out-group decisions. We agree to something not because we are persuaded, but because our side agrees” (p. 448). Trump used rhetoric to deny he used rhetoric; he called concerns mere political correctness. Trump used six strategies.

Argumentatum ad populum (appealing to the crowd); this can be done by appealing to authority (some disputed assertion is a ‘fact’); use presence of a large crowd as evidence of widespread support; use crowds to strengthen the emotional response of the audience: “True demagogues know how to play on both the positive and negative emotions and how to touch both the group as a whole and the individuals. The positive emotions included feelings of safety and loyalty, the negative ones, fear, greed, and shame (L 483). When the “crowd” is not representative, it is manipulative. Ad populum appeals prevent critical thinking given the “wisdom of the crowd” and “the voice of the people.”

American exceptionalism. America has a unique status relative to the rest of the world. The colonists had a fresh start, really focusing on rugged individualism and hard work. This was recognized by de Tocqueville, who also recognized the greed and self-interest, plus Puritanical religion. The result was a unique culture, with good and bad characteristics. “Yet the myth of American exceptionalism elides [omits]America’s uniqueness and substitutes America’s greatness. … Because American exceptionalism techniques stir the patriotic emotions of pride, they can make critical thinking more difficult. … American exceptionalism appeals are particularly pernicious because they take advantage of the nation’s hope that it can be a beacon of freedom and liberty for others and turns what could be a positive approach to understanding the nation’s obligations toward other nations into hubris and, potentially, to violence” (L 506).

Paralipsis: leave to the side (I’m not saying, I’m just saying), used to circulate rumors and accusations. It offers accusations without explanation or evidence and gives “plausible deniability.” It’s also a form of irony, to say two things at once—denying and affirming simultaneously. It can also be funny (or really weird or both). Trump uses retweets in this context.

Argument ad hominem (appeal to the person), attacking the person rather than their arguments, shifting attention from the issue at hand to the person raising it. It could be a direct personal attack (e.g., the person’s intelligence or expertise); attack the motivation of the questioner (e.g., self-interested or biased); or appeal to hypocrisy of the words or deeds of the person. “Ad hominem attacks may help demagogues increase polarization by creating or reinforcing in-groups and out-groups by mocking or disparaging others” (L 544).

Argument ad baculum (appeal to the stick), threats of force or intimidation. “Rhetorical scholar James Jasinski explains that ad baculum appeals involve some kind of threat by involve ambiguity because it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between a threat and a warning” (L 551). It could include threats of violence, or releasing private or embarrassing information.

Reification, treating people as objects. It “prevents critical thinking by delegitimizing the voices of the objects and in so doing denies critics the opportunity to question the demagogue or speak of their concerns” (L 580). “Demagogues refer to entire groups of people as ‘the,’ as in the blacks or the gays” (p. 583).

“Trump’s rhetoric was so successful that the nation found itself in a position in which no one was powerful enough to control him. … Trump correctly guessed that dangerously high levels of distrust, polarization, and frustration could be exploited with a little (or perhaps a lot of) showmanship” (L 592).

Each chapter begins with a Trump quote to identify a specific rhetorical trick, then expanding and fleshing it out in that chapter. She reviews all the Trump rallies, resulting in an incredible number of quotes that fit all the rhetorical tricks. I focus only on a few.

Part One: Trump and the Distrusting Electorate. “According to a 2015 Pew Research poll, only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right. … Donald Trump ran a campaign that was designed to increase distrust for government and traditional leadership. … Trump took advantage of his followers’ cynicism and gullibility; he told his followers to be suspicious of everyone and to trust no one but him” (L 636-667).

Chapter 1: “I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness” (Ad populum), 2015. Political correctness was an ad populum attack, raising distrust and alienation: Trump as the icon of irreverent resistance: “Trump became that icon by arguing repeatedly over the course of his campaign that the twin scourges of corruption and political correctness were destroying America” (L 684). Add to that obscene, racist, and homophobic slurs during rallies. 80% of Trump supporters claimed the government has gone too far in assisting minority groups. Republican focus group guy Frank Luntz discovered that Trump was “punishment to a Republican elite that wasn’t listening to their grassroots” (L 707). “When Trump’s opponents also tried to use politically incorrect attacks against Trump, they appeared inauthentic and desperate” (L 836).

Chapter 2: “It’s going to be like this. … I’m going to continue to attack the press” 2016 (Ad baculum). The media took the big hit from Trump with threats of force and intimidation; this included lawsuits and (even more) threats of lawsuits, throwing reporters out of press conferences and rallies, and boycotting specific media organizations. An interesting side was feeding reporters bad information and attacking them for reporting it—“fake news.” He expected the media to be loyal to him—for the big ratings boom; apparently, the idea that they were critical of virtually all politicians escaped his attention. Of course, he spent time with Fox and other media that gave him favorable coverage. Accountability was off the table. Trump was able to frame election-related coverage for his supporters.

“In the end, the press was largely unable to hold Trump accountable for his words, policies, or behavior. What was worse, the press ended the election with less public trust than it had before the election” (L 989).

Chapter 3: “You could have a Trojan horse situation. You could—this could be the ultimate Trojan horse” (reification). This related to the migration crisis as a “Trojan horse for ISIS invasion” according the InfoWars. Trump rebranded refugees, noted the stupidity of US leaders. The complicated stories of refugees and migrants (a potential humanitarian crisis) was simplified into potential terrorist—people as objects. “Objects don’t have rights—only people do” (L 1124). He did roughly the same by dehumanizing Muslims and preventing their entry into the US.

Chapter 4: “Now, the poor guy. You gotta see this guy” (ad hominem), about handicapped reported Steve Kovaleski). ‘Trump had warned of the need for stronger borders, increased surveillance, extreme vetting, and other controversial policies designed specifically to thwart what he believed were the threats of illegal immigration and Muslim terrorism” (L 1179). Trump claimed thousands of Muslims were cheering in New Jersey on 9/11. There was cheering in Middle Eastern countries broadcast on TV. When confronted by Stephanopoulos (and others), he claimed Stephanopoulos was part of the corrupt media (ad hominem: attacking the person, not the argument). This was reinforced by ad populum appeal (wisdom of the crowd) supporting his view—that is, Trump was right, discredit the media who were suppressing evidence. The “failing New York Times” a similar ad hominem attack; ditto, “Chuck Todd is a moron and totally one-sided,” plus any number of “low IQ and real dummy people.”

Chapter 5: “I’m not saying that he conspired; I’m just saying that it was all over the place” (paralipsis, referring to Rubio and Cruz ineligible to run for president, not natural born citizens). “It was a retweet. … I mean, let people make their own determination” (L1316). “Trump used paralispsis to make accusations that he could later disavow without having to take responsibility for his words. … It helped him spread rumors while avoiding consequences (L 124). “Catch and kill” was used by the National Enquirer to avoid negative stories about Trump.

Chapter 6: “I am America First. So, I like the expression. I’m America First” (American exceptionalism). “We are in a competitive world … and I want America to win” (L 1442). All transactions, in Trump’s view, were zero-sum; the idea that all parties could benefit, apparently escaped his attention. “American exceptionalism—presented as American greatness—was the underlying logic motivating his campaign theme, “make America great again” (L 1449). It was also a “political jeremiad—a warning that Americans had abandoned the principles that had made the nation great in the first place. … For Trump, the single answer to the question of what once made America great was winning. … Trump being the solution. … It meant making decision only with American interests in mind (foreign policy) and rebuilding the American economy (domestic policy” (L 1453-71).

Part Two: Trump and the Polarized Electorate. “Totalitarian governments and their leaders are infallible. As soon as complete power is obtained, the monopoly over all instrumentalities of communications gives unlimited propaganda possibilities to the totalitarian” (L 1563). “Trump’s ad populum (appealing to the wisdom of the crowd) appeal against the Republican political establishment told his followers to reject the Republican intellectual elite that had done them wrong. Trump’s ad hominem (attacking the person instead of the argument) attack against the Republican political establishment told his followers to reject the Republican elected officials who had done them wrong. Trump’s paralipsis (I’m not saying; I’m just saying) allowed him to disavow knowledge of racist violence while praising his supporters for fighting against their shared enemies, Trump’s ad baculum (threats of force or intimidation) threats against his supporters’ gun rights told them that they had to reject Hillary Clinton if they wanted to be safe. Trump’s reification (treating people as objects) of immigrants separated Trump’s good Americans from the infestation of dangerous invaders. And Trump’s American exceptionalism (American’s unique status among other nations in the world) told his followers that all other politicians supported the conspiracy of corruption, which only he could fix. … He told his followers that anyone who was not with Trump was their mortal enemy” (L 1593).

Chapter 7. I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters (ad populum). “Trump wielded his loyal followers like a cudgel—they gave him a lot of leverage. … He protected his base of support by using ad populum arguments (appeal to the wisdom of the crowd) to praise his followers as wise, good, and beautiful real Americans” (L 1625). “There was no value in conservatism itself; there was only value in conservatism if it had high ratings” (L 1654)—the establishment conservatives became the “elites.” Trump had 324 rallies in 512 days.

Chapter 8: “Low-energy Jeb!” (ad hominem, attacking the person instead of the argument). “The last thing we need is another Bush … another weak, ineffective politician … people are tired of these guys. … Trump had a knack for branding; he had a particular ability to polarize people by branding his and their shared enemies. In using ad hominem to brand his enemies, Trump attempts to delegitimize his political opposition” (L 1769-1785). He typically used ad hominem attacks to sidestep questions on his qualifications or his positions. He used them to ridicule and make them illegitimate—portraying himself as “high energy, a quick study, decisive, and able to lead” (L 1835).

Chapter 9: “I didn’t tweet: I retweeted somebody that was supposedly an expert. Am I gonna check every statistic? All it was is a retweet. And it wasn’t from me” (paralipsis). Great publicity from alt-right neo-Nazi posts: “Our glorious leader has ascended to God Emperor; [and] white nationalists: a victory of White Americans over the oligarchic, hostile elites what have run this country for decades” (L 1948-54). “Trump’s ability to say two things at once via paralipsis allowed him to simultaneously embrace and disavow the white nationalists who supported him. … His double-talk signaled who were his enemies and who were his friends. … Trump’s use of paralipsis also gave plausible deniability for Americans who wanted to support his campaign but didn’t see themselves as racist” (L 1968-72). Conveniently, there was evidence of Trump’s racist past in his housing practices. For some reason, diversity is seen as “white genocide.” Trump used retweets to deny accountability, basically the logic of paralipsis.

Chapter 10. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment, people, maybe there is. I don’t know” (ad baculum). What makes America safer: Republicans: gun rights (89%); Democrats: controlling gun ownership (79%). Trump used fear appeals, threats of force or intimidation against his followers. Clinton would abolish the Second Amendment, according to Trump.

Chapter 11. “Oh, shut up, silly woman, said the reptile with a grin. You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me it” (reification). “The key to understanding how Trump used reification (treating people as objects) to polarize Americans around the issue of illegal immigration to is pay careful attention to how Trump portrayed the nation as inherently pure and illegal immigrants as a dangerous infestation” (L 2348). “Nations are imagined communities—they are constructed by our laws but also in our imaginations” (L 2353). Even Pope Francis tried to get Trump to view immigrants as people: “The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon” (L 2542).

Chapter 12. “Drain the swamp” (American exceptionalism). He called Census Bureau economic statistics he didn’t like “phony and politicians’ lies”—presumably based on some conspiracy against him and America. Trump used conspiracy theories often, beginning with the “birther conspiracy,” with the estimate of 50 different conspiracies in the final year of his campaign. “Conspiracy is ‘self-sealing,’ meaning that any holes in the story are quickly covered up by the logics of conspiracy as a narrative and as an epistemology—both as a story and as a way of knowing. … metaphysical rather than empirical” (L 2615). Why a conspiracy against America: Obama was not American and Clinton was controlled by foreign interests. Note relationship with Alex Jones and Roger Stone; even 9/11, Oklahoma City bombing, and Sandy Hook Elementary School. Hillary and Obama as founders of ISIS. In this telling, Trump is American exceptionalism personified. He certainly never claimed he would accept the results of the election—unless he won; the election was rigged. He had to “drain the swamp.”

Part Three: Trump and the Frustrated Electorate. Frustration with government was an important part of the 2016 election. Trump increased this frustration.

Chapter 13. “Yeah, lock her ups is right. No? (Ad baculum). Republicans (82%) thought Clinton’s emails should be subject to criminal investigation—think Trump, Congress and Comey (“careless”). “What she did is very criminal” (L 2836)—at a Trump rally. Then the “Hillary for Prison” T-shirts. Trump later “looming behind Clinton” in the debate, like “a schoolyard bully.” “Trump’s words matched his nonverbal behavior” (L 2966). Clinton’s emails were a symbol of “Clinton’s conspiracy of corruption.”

Chapter 14. “Russia, if you’re listening …” (paralipsis)—I hope you find the thirty thousand emails. Nothing like asking an adversary to conduct cyber espionage. Fox called it sarcasm. Putin kind of praised Trump, saying something like “he’s a very colorful person” (a difficult translation from Russian). Trump used it as an endorsement and claimed Putin called him a genius and brilliant. Got to always market the Trump brand. “Two joint efforts were supported by Russian propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik: (1) cyber-warfare, attacking the systems and hardware of an adversary and (2) memetic-warfare, attacking the thoughts, narratives, and emotions of an adversary. … July 7, 2016, Sputnik explained what it called the ‘Trump Doctrine’ as very pro-Russia. According to Sputnik, Trump vowed to work with Russia, draw back NATO, and stop arming Syrian rebels” (L 3270-6). “Circulating WikiLeak’s emails was a winning strategy for Trump: it helped him stoke frustrations that the election was rigged, that the nation was weak, that Clinton was corrupt, that she had benefited from the culture of corruption in Washington, and that the mainstream media was on her side” (L 3353).

Chapter 15. “You know the story. It’s Crooked Hillary. She’s as crooked as they come” (ad hominem). “Trump was heroic because he was successful, he said, and his success in business qualified him to be a successful president and was ‘just the kind of thinking we need’ to make America great again. … Trump would deploy ad hominem attacks to show his fans that his enemies were beneath contempt. Trump’s heroic ad hominem strategy worked particularly well with the frustrated electorate of 2016 because his followers believed that America was being blocked from something that was legitimately theirs (winning, America, greatness” (L 3400-7). Then the Trump University lawsuits resulting in $25 million returned to stuednts and Clinton’s counterattack, portraying him as “a serial con artist who had a history of ‘enriching himself at the expense of hard-working people’ … and his supposedly heroic presidential campaign was all just a scam” (L 3505). Then the Trump counter that Clinton ran the State Department as her personal hedge fund. Trump claimed he could not get a fair trial because the Trump University judge was named Gonzalo Curiel—it sounded Mexican.

Chapter 16. “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals. … How will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton … that you are part of the war on women?” [Megan Kelly] (reification). Trump continued a feud with Kelly. Trump claimed Clinton was playing the women’s card. “Trump appealed to frustration, sexism, and fragile masculinity by reifying women (treating people as objects) and successfully turned gender into a wedge issue to activate his followers. Decades of right-wing propaganda—calling feminists ‘feminazis’ and similar—had persuaded some Americans that ‘feminism is cancer.’ … The manosphere is a collection of websites and discussion boards devoted to the ‘reality’ that women run the world without taking responsibility for it” (L 3622-30). Trump was considered the “ultimate alpha male.” Forty-two percent of women voted for Trump, 53% of men.

Chapter 17. “It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to” (ad populum). “Trump’s campaign used ad populum to expertly take advantage of preexisting distrust and polarization turning the nation’s frustration into action that would support his campaign. … He praised his followers as wise and patriotic; second, he praised himself for being so popular with his wise and patriotic followers; and, third, Trump activated his followers to think of themselves as fellow heroes in a movement to defend their shared wise and patriotic values against the corrupt elite. … The establishment was always wrong and Trump’s people were always right” (L 3917). After the Access Hollywood tape, Republicans wanted Trump to drop out, which he refused to do—thus, the shackles were taken off, while the Republican leadership was weak and ineffective. This unusual metaphorical framing worked. This narrative suggested that any bad news about Trump were ploys by a corrupt elite.

Chapter 18. “I. Am. Your. Voice! (American exceptionalism). So much for “institutional filters.” “Trump was uncontrollable. He had taken advantage of Americans’ authoritarian streak and used it to overpower the already weakened democratic gatekeepers. … Trump’s strongman rhetoric has activated and energized American authoritarians to his candidacy, providing him with a large and loyal base of supporters. … If a political candidate could make people believe that the threats exist, then they could activate their authoritarianism” (L 4101-16). Trump, along with Roger Stone and Alex Jones repeated the rigged election and distorted media, which would result in a stolen election. Therefore: “I am your voice.”

Conclusions. Controlling the uncontrollable leader. “For reminding American that demagoguery feeds on despair and that truth is only as powerful as the trust in those who speak it, for empowering a hidden electorate by mainstreaming its furies and live-streaming its fears, and for framing tomorrow’s political culture by demolishing yesterday’s, Donald Trump is Time’s 2016 Person of the Year” (L 4377). “Trump ran a campaign that was designed to increase distrust for government and traditional leadership. Within a crisis of polarization in which Americans believed that they had little common ground with their political opposition, did not share the same values, and that their opposition was an enemy of the state, Trump ran a campaign that was designed to increase polarization. Within a crisis of frustration in which Americans believed that government was the biggest issue facing the nation, that the nation was on the wrong track, and that anybody else would do a better job running the country than the current leaders. … Trump’s dangerous demagoguery used rhetoric as a weapon” (L 4395).

Mercieca turned to the authoritarian approach as an alternative explanation for Trump, using Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die. “Authoritarian leaders typically erode democracy by doing four things. First, … authoritarians reject or show a weak commitment to the democratic rules, … expressing a willingness to violate the Constitution, undermining the legitimacy of elections, and using or endorsing extraconstitutional means to change the government, such as military coups or violent insurrections. Dangerous demagogues likewise use weaponized rhetoric to reject or show a weak commitment to the democratic rules; … attempt to overwhelm the news cycle to prevent negative stories from gaining attention; … by targeting people for retweets, and by dumping unfavorable news … to distort reality by spreading propaganda, conspiracy theory, fake news and disinformation. Dangerous demagogues attempt to distort meaning by taking words out of context, intentionally ignoring contradictory information and intentionally subverting the dominant meanings of key words or by using dog whistles; … distort public sentiment through bots, manipulating algorithms and computational propaganda; … use typical rhetorical figures and fallacies such as paralipsis and tu quoque [appeal to hypocrisy] to say two things at once and accuse their accusers of being hypocrites. … [They] reject the democratic rules of the game of public deliberation.

“Second, deny the legitimacy of political opponents … claiming that rivals represent an existential threat … and describing their rivals as criminals who are not qualified to hold office; … using ad hominem attack to constitute their opposition as illegitimate and by using reification to constitute their opposition as nonhuman enemy objects who are illegitimate. Third, authoritarians tolerate or encourage violence … such as having ties to armed gangs or militias, sponsoring or encouraging mob attacks, and refusing to condemn or praising political violence conducted in their name; … use ad baculum threats, ad populum appeals, ad hominem attacks, reification, and American exceptionalism to polarize citizens and threaten their opposition. … Fourth, … authoritarians are ready to curtail the civil liberties of opponents and the media, [for example] expanding libel or defamation laws, restricting protest and government criticism, threatening to punish rival parties or media, and praising repressive measures taken by other governments; … curtain civil liberties, which include jailing, threatening, and undermining journalists, refusing to hold press conferences, lying to reporters and subsequently blaming reporters for carrying false stories; threatening libel, attempting to bankrupt or devalue media companies to force them out of business; speaking only to favorable media organizations; forcing government workers to sign nondisclosure agreements; surveilling citizens. (L 4421-67).

“Competitive debate adheres to specific rules: flagging violations of the rules [ad hominem attacks, etc.] is a part of the game. Real political discourse does not adhere to any rules. … Totalitarian demagogues merged the techniques of demagoguery with new mass media technology and the newly perfected techniques of propaganda to make themselves even more dangerous and powerful” (l 4490-502). Totalitarian governments are all-powerful and leaders infallible; adversaries are liars and traitors. They have a monopoly on communications with unlimited propaganda potential.

“Rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke explained in 1939 that Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric had a specific kind of demagogic effectiveness. According to Burke’s reading of Mein Kamph, Hitler’s rhetoric relied upon anti-intellectualism, repetition, spectacle, mass meetings, uniformed guards as authority figures, slogans, symbols, ideology, certainty, polarization, and scapegoating” (L 4512). Hitler’s four principles: 1) Agenda setting and framing to attract attention; 2) address the rhetoric to the masses; 3) appeal to emotions rather than logic; and 4) limit rhetoric to bar essentials and as stereotypes. “Hitler’s rhetorical strategy centered on agenda setting and framing, simplicity, emotion, and slogans and repetition. Trump use the same rhetorical strategies as Hitler, but he also innovated new tactics that took advantage of new media and propaganda technologies. Trump is a new kind of demagogue. He is a demagogue of the spectacle—part entertainer, part authoritarian” (L 4527).

Some people can get virtually all of their information from the media, which is typically “commodified” as part of capitalism. “What was true was limited to what would sell. … Public opinion, for example … is the spectacle of opinion polls created by news organization as ‘pseudo-events.’ A second effect of the spectacle was to silence opposition, prevent logic and critical thinking, and inculcate distrust. … By preventing critical thinking, the spectacle turned citizens into ideologues. … Trump is the demagogue of the spectacle—a spectacular demagogue. … Whereas Hitler’s effectiveness was based on totalitarianism and violence, Trump’s effectiveness is based on outrage and entertainment. Trump is the modern-day PT Barnum” (L 4533-68).

“Dangerous demagogues like Donald Trump have no power in a properly functioning democracy” (L 4608). Is it later than we think—like the 1930s?

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© 2016 Gary Giroux