Demagogue, n.: 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; an unprincipled or factious popular orator. (Oxford English Dictionary)
In democracies the principal cause of revolutions is the insolence of the demagogues; for they cause the owners of property to band together, partly by malicious prosecutions of individuals among them (for common fear brings together even the greatest enemies), and partly by setting on the common people against them as a class.
-Aristotle, Politics, Book 5 (20).
All good speakers understand how to work the three central aspects of rhetorical argument – logos (the logic that matches the listener’s worldview), ethos (the character that the listener sees as admirable or desirable), and pathos (the listener’s emotions).
Demagogues work with logos, ethos, and pathos by using people’s fears, anger, and frustrations. They have a clear understanding of who their target audience is, and they appeal to their basest reasoning and emotions. This was precisely what Trump did. He identified his target voters and played to them in a spectacularly effective way.
Trump wanted the evangelical vote, so he said things that would appeal to evangelicals (regardless how his behaviors contradicted his words). He wanted the disenfranchised blue collar vote, so he found their pain points and spoke about those who took or threatened their jobs (despite his own use of undocumented migrant workers and other shady dealings). He wanted the vote of those tired of the same old thing in Washington, so he associated and compared stagnant political activity with Clinton’s years in office.
In true demagogue fashion, Trump stoked the frustration, disillusionment, and rage of his supporters. He reduced complex socio-and-geo-political issues to us-versus-them sound bites. He offered no clear policy, no sober analysis, but by god did he ever get people worked up.
I can’t pretend to be unbiased when writing this – I believe that Trump’s campaign was repugnant. I also fully realize that the results of the campaign aren’t just down to how Trump campaigned. It’s a vastly complicated scenario that has been building for years. Many, many people cast their votes as ways to reject or protest things they didn’t believe in or couldn’t stomach, rather than voting because they were in 100% agreement with the candidate they chose. Politics and political choices is muddy business.
But in this post, I’m looking at the campaign from a speech and rhetoric perspective. And even when you step back from the emotions and take another look at the messaging, the speeches, the debates, and the Tweets, there can be no denying that his campaign was run on words of fear and hate and self-protection. His campaign was run in the style of a demagogue.
Still, we need to give credit where credit’s due. While listening to Trump speak and debate is like eating word salad, the way he targeted and provoked his supporters was masterful. That’s a lesson that any speaker should take note of. It’s a way to win arguments and to craft powerful speeches. It might not be the most upstanding strategy, but it is a strategy you could use.
And before you, or I, or anyone who speaks to a crowd cries the they’ll never emulate a demagogue, take note: these tactics are tempting. They’re tempting because they work. They can sneak in and infiltrate even a well-meaning speaker’s words. So remember the demagogue, take a second or third look at your speech or talk, and be mindful of the strategies you choose to use.