On Demagogues and Prophets

In 1961, Charles Lomas, pioneer of rhetorical studies, famously defined demagoguery as “the process by which skillful speakers and writers seek to influence public opinion by employing the traditional tools of rhetoric with complete indifference to truth. In addition,” he wrote, “although demagoguery does not necessarily seek ends contrary to the public interest, its primary motivation is personal gain” (Lomas, “The Rhetoric of Demagoguery,” Western Speech (Summer 1961), p. 161). Lomas goes on to specify what he means by “the truth.” He argues that there is no need to “posit an absolute truth;” at minimum, we can say, he thinks, that the demagogue is one who clearly does not intend to “state and interpret facts objectively.”

I’ll admit from the outset that I’ve been casting around to learn more about demagoguery because I suspect that our soon-to-be President, Donald J. Trump, is a demagogue. That’s my working hypothesis. While it might be a simple case of confirmation bias, I am inclined to think that Lomas’s definition of demagoguery describes Trump’s politics well – particularly the parts about using the tools of rhetoric with “complete indifference to the truth” and that the demagogue’s “primary motivation” is “personal gain.” I won’t re-hash here concerns about Trump’s “indifference to truth,” nor persistent worries that he will manipulate the presidency to advance his business interests.

With Lomas, I don’t think we need to invoke some understanding of absolute truth to describe demagoguery accurately. Contra Lomas, I’m also pretty sure that there is no such a thing as “objective” statements and interpretations of “the facts,” So, let’s just forget about both absolute truth and objective interpretations of the facts and say that the demagogue is characteristically inhospitable to nuanced and competing descriptions of politically relevant states of affairs. Indeed, the demagogue even aspires to undermine the conditions that make nuanced descriptions possible (by undermining the media, norms of public discourse, etc.) – and is especially inhospitable to nuanced descriptions of politically relevant states of affairs that threaten to disrupt the demagogue’s aspirations for personal gain.

The demagogue perceives already existing tensions in what public audiences are willing to endorse as truthful descriptions of politically relevant states of affairs. The demagogue then works to undermine norms of public discourse in order to surface these tensions in ways that enhance the demagogue’s political power and position. Donald Trump, it is often claimed, is “just saying what everyone already thinks.” That statement is surely false in its assumptions about who “everyone” is and what they think. But the statement is probably true in that it implies a margin of public discourse that Trump did not himself create but, through his rhetorical performances, disclosed, legitimated, and leveraged to enhance his political power. Validating and intensifying fear, anger, and anxiety, demagogues engage a disaffected margin of public discourse, not to advance constructive forms of political cooperation, but to undermine democratic affirmations of pluralism, and the qualities of nuance and complexity that accompany them. The demagogue is not finally a champion of the disaffected communities he or she claims to be defending; she is a champion of herself.

In her recent book Prophecy without Contempt (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), Cathleen Kaveny argues that the proper function of the prophet is to administer what she calls “moral chemotherapy” in times when practical reasoning is profoundly attenuated – when, she writes, practical reasoning proceeds either on the basis of “distorted assumptions about the nature of reality” or a “skewed perception of the importance of the moral values at stake.” She goes on to suggest that the prophet “[destroys] the diseased moral reasoning” and “[promotes] healthy regrowth based on a secure connection with fundamental religious and moral truths” (pp. 312-13).

Demagogues and prophets bear interesting similarities to one another. Both diminish complexity in order to radically re-orient public discourse; both, therefore, are blunt-force instruments. To the extent that Kaveny’s “chemotherapy” metaphor signals drastic rhetorical measures, both prophets and demagogues work in that medium. Demagogues pull public discourse in the direction of disaffection, fear, and anxiety – political emotions that thrive on absolutist distinctions between good and evil, strong and weak. Demagogues thereby undermine democratic commitments to pluralism and conceptions of justice that affirm multiple and conflicting forms of human experience and value. Demagoguery expands the marginal spaces that prophets inhabit, as prophets stand on the side of “the weak” and “the enemy” that demagogues so passionately demonize. In democratic contexts, prophets pull discourse back in the direction of fundamental commitments to equality, equal access, and justice for all. The “for all” part ultimately distinguishes the prophet’s vocation from the demagogue’s; the demagogue is finally only out for himself.

We will shortly have a demagogue in the White House. That’s an open invitation to prophets who can champion all of those left out of Trump’s project to “make America great again.”