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:
1) The use of an incendiary, but otherwise unimportant, example to whip up anger against the so-called establishment classes
Why mention “alligators and moats,” or claim that doctors wantonly lop off limbs and rip out tonsils, or accuse jet-setting corporate grandees of draining the federal Treasury at the expense of “kids’ scholarships”? The president knows full well that the American-Mexican border is only one-third fenced and the influx of illegal aliens is still considerable. He must appreciate that the vast majority of doctors, in this age of promiscuous malpractice suits, do not insist on dangerous and unnecessary surgeries to gouge the patient. And corporate depreciation schedules for personal aircraft reflect a minuscule cost to the Treasury, one analogous perhaps to the tab for personal jet aircraft for those in federal and state government. If the president cannot adduce cogent arguments to oppose increased oil exploration, then he turns to ridiculous anecdotes about the importance of inflating tires, tuning up cars, and trading in 8-mpg clunkers.
2) The demagogic rejection of demagoguery
Recently the president called for a civil, respectful tone among the parties negotiating the looming debt crisis — a sort of prep for tarring his Republican opponents as holding a “gun” to the “head” of his supporters. In fact, for most of Barack Obama’s career we have seen violent similes packaged with Sermon on the Mount forbearance: Divisive language like “bring a gun to a knife fight,” “get in their face,” and “make them sit in the back seat” is always juxtaposed with lofty appeals for no more red-state/blue-state rancor — in a style right out of the best of the fourth-century Athenian demagogues.
In classical times this technique was known as praeteritio and paralipsis — deploring the very sort of tropes that you are about to embrace. Obama adds a concrete manifestation to his rhetoric: damning “fat cat” bankers and then playing golf more than any other modern president as he courts Wall Street, or deriding private jets but using his own presidential jets to junket the first family to Costa del Sol, Vail, and Martha’s Vineyard.
3) The evocation of anonymous straw men, sometimes referred to as “some” or “they”
In the Manichean world of Barack Obama there are all sorts of such demons, mostly unnamed, who insist on extremist politics — while the president soberly and judiciously splits the difference between these fantasy poles. So for the last three years we have heard, but been offered few details, about the perils of both neo-con interventionists and reactionary isolationists, of both profligate big spenders and throw-grandma-over-the-cliff misers, of both socialist single-payer advocates and heartless laissez-faire insurers who shut emergency-room doors to the indigent in extremis — always with the wise Barack Obama plopping down in the middle, trying, for the sake of all the people, to hold onto the golden mean between these artificially constructed zealots.
4) First-person nausea
The demagogue, in messianic fashion, sees himself as a lone crusader taking on special interests, again always on behalf of “the people.” Almost everything is personalized in these cosmic struggles. So, ad nauseam, we hear of the narcissistic “I,” “my,” “mine,” etc., as if the executive branch is but one man of genius and compassion, set against existential challenges and demonic enemies everywhere.
5) Inconsistency of position, predicated on the (always changing) perception of 51 percent majority opinion
At various times, Barack Obama has lashed out at those who wished to refuse to raise the debt limit, although as a senator that is just how he voted. He deplored the polluting effects of big money in campaigns, only to raise more Wall Street cash than anyone else in presidential history — as he became the first candidate to reject the public financing of general-election presidential campaigns and the limitations on fundraising that such four-decade-old laws entailed. He once decried the very idea of not applying the War Powers Act that as president he has completely ignored. He insisted that drilling and increased supply had little effect on oil-price stability — but maintained that releasing a small amount of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve most surely would. The once-demonized Bush protocols — Guantanamo, tribunals, renditions, intercepts, wiretaps, Predators, Iraq, preventive detention — have been embraced or indeed expanded.
There is never a systematic agenda, a defined foreign policy. Instead, amid a fuzzy ideology of hope and change and spread the wealth, almost any position can be embraced one day and summarily rejected the next — no new taxes in December 2010, lots of them in June 2011; shovel-ready stimulus is once essential, but soon proves not so shovel-ready after all; new federal health care is mandatory, but so are 1,400 exemptions from it — depending on perceptions of what might win over a majority.
What impresses about Barack Obama is his ability to take an ancient art, refine it with an Ivy League veneer, and become a new, cool version of the old Cleon.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the 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.