President Trump’s crude performance last week at an annual gathering of conservatives — he physically embraced the American flag, called the Mueller probe “bullshit” and referred to Rep. Adam Schiff as “shifty” — was an affront to the decorum we expect from presidents, and plenty of critics pointed this out. Trump was “not merely undignified as a leader; he is committed to stripping away the dignity possessed by others,” Michael Gerson wrote in The Washington Post. One Twitter commenter described the speech as “an undignified mess of slop,” and another labeled Trump “the most undignified President in history.”
But this was the same Trump who as a presidential candidate referred to the size of his manhood during a Republican debate. He said about protesters at his campaign events, “In the good old days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough.” He asserted that “Islam hates us” and that Mexicans are “rapists.” Not only did he get away with those offenses, but they somehow made him stronger. And he’s gone even further as president. After each episode, Trump’s critics have been as scandalized as they have been ineffective, just as they were after the speech at last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference. During the campaign, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called Trump “the most vulgar person to ever aspire to the presidency,” and see how far that got Rubio.
In fact, demagogues like Trump are almost always undignified. That is a feature, not a bug, of their politics. When Hillary Clinton infamously described his supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” Trump swiftly converted the comment into a badge of honor. It turned out that he wanted his followers to trumpet themselves as “Les Deplorables” — because that was already his argument. While their critics think demagogues hurt themselves politically by violating the standards of polite society, they’re doing the opposite: They’re doubling down on an unorthodox but potent politics.
In other words, we must understand why Trump’s CPAC performance was rational from his perspective before we can begin to understand how to deal with it. And that means taking Trump, his supporters and his “undignified” performances seriously.
A textbook demagogue meets four tests. First, he identifies as a man of the masses, usually by attacking elites. Second, he creates great waves of passion. Third, he uses that passion for political benefit. Fourth, he tests or breaks established rules of governance. Taken together, this approach enables the demagogue to create a state within a state — a massive cult — that follows him alone.
Trump is the first demagogue to actually become president, but American history has seen a lot of them, whether the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace, the Wisconsin senator and communist-chaser Joseph McCarthy, the Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long, or the Detroit “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin. World history has seen Mussolini and Hitler and, more recently, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.
All of these figures were called undignified by critics who thought their antics could not succeed because they should not succeed. For Chávez, for instance, vulgar language and insults were a trademark, not a flaw. He talked to national audiences about having sex with his wife, called Americans an obscene term, described his bowel movements on television and named the first cellphone made in Venezuela after a popular slang term for penis. Opponents said his talk was crude and made them ashamed. In 2009, a 70-year-old Venezuelan social worker lamented to a reporter, “A president needs to project a good image.” But Chavez’s power only grew. Only cancer stopped his political career.
Whether you call it decency or decorum or dignity, these old-fashioned standards provide cold comfort when they are the very things demagogues want to blow up as they seek domination. The fact is that demagogues thrive at the lowest common denominator. That is why they relish their status as political bad boys, vulgarians who say things they really shouldn’t. That “Oh, no he didn’t” sense of daring lets them play the hero in a drama in which they take on the naysaying establishment.
This renegade behavior easily satisfies the demagogue’s four tests: attacking elites, stirring massive emotional power, converting that emotion into politics and, most important, obliterating the rules that allow normal governance. Put another way, what so many critics of demagogues have trouble getting their minds around is also the most necessary to understanding them: It’s rational for a demagogue to seem irrational.
What I saw last weekend was Trump methodically, over a period of two hours, intensifying his support among his base through a series of precise inflammations, while carefully steering his audience toward the new norms and institutions he’s creating. It’s the same as when he delights in leading his supporters to angrily chant, “CNN sucks!” The United Nations’ human rights chief called those attacks on the press “close to incitement to violence.” The accused Florida mail bomber was at one of those Trump rallies, holding up one of those signs.
Most normal people would assume that vulgar, crude people would fail in politics. So how do they succeed, practically speaking? In the ancient world, they were still fairly new, so philosophers were interested in studying them. Aristotle observed that it was easier for demagogues than statesmen to use enthymemes — proofs or analogies dependent on collective past experience — because they shared more in common with the people they were addressing. While educated speakers used “commonplaces and generalities,” Aristotle observed, demagogues “speak of what they know and of what more nearly concerns the audience.”
What Trump understands is that millions of Americans feel left behind by our politics. They are frustrated by everything about conventional politics, including the expectation that traditional rules like decency and dignified behavior will help solve their problems. They are ripe for a demagogue.
The problem of how elite critics miss the demagogue’s strategy, hiding in plain sight, is as old as democracy itself. In ancient Athens, the well-born playwright Aristophanes attempted to undermine a demagogue named Cleon through a series of satirical plays, staged before thousands. Cleon was a colorful figure who said, “As a general rule states are better governed by the man in the street than by intellectuals.” After a generation of statesmanlike leaders, Cleon took joy in demolishing decorum. While making speeches, he would do things like suddenly shout, dramatically throw open his tunic and slap his thighs for emphasis. So Trump was following an old playbook when he wrapped his body around an American flag — or when he mimicked a disabled reporter during the presidential campaign. For his followers, these antics are intoxicating.
Aristophanes depicted Cleon in his plays as a vulgar sausage-seller. He mocked the “pig’s education he has had.” He wrote, “You possess all the attributes of a demagogue: a screeching, horrible voice; a perverse, cross-grained nature; and the language of the market-place.” None of this worked. Athenians continued to elect Cleon as general. The plays may have heightened his celebrity.
This pattern has also played out in American history. Consider how the ruling class mocked Long, the folksy Louisiana governor, as he rose to the U.S. Senate. H.L. Mencken dismissed him as a “backwoods demagogue of the oldest and most familiar model — impudent, blackguardly, and infinitely prehensile.” In 1931, the new senator cheerfully greeted a visiting German naval commander in a pair of green silk pajamas and a bathrobe. After the German consul’s office issued statements of outrage and protest, Long met the commander the next day in a formal striped suit and tails. Long’s antics created a sensation of nationalistic defiance, and one historian wrote that Long learned the “value of buffoonery in winning national publicity” and would continue to “cultivate a reputation as a country bumpkin and a clown.”
This “bumpkin” was also described by a woman in 1935 as an “angel sent by God.” Before he was assassinated by the son-in-law of a political rival in 1935, Long created hundreds of nationwide chapters of his Share Our Wealth Society. He very well could have defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1936 Democratic primary for president.
Chávez, too, adopted tactics that were so outrageous, so unthinkable, that they seemed impossible just up until the moment they became successful. As president, Chávez became so audacious in his demagoguery that he made a speech that was literally 10 hours long. But there was method to his madness. He was taking over the state, in plain view.
Demagogues have been with democracy from the beginning. It’s not overstating things to say the demagogue represents the battle between darkness and light — between our prejudices and our reason — that’s at the heart of democracy itself. After all, Alexander Hamilton worried in the very first of the Federalist Papers about those who would pay “obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
In his CPAC speech, Trump told the crowd: “I’m in love, and you’re in love, we’re all in love together. . . . There’s so much love in this room, it’s easy to talk.” Faced with the threats of impeachment from Congress and evidence of lawbreaking in the Mueller report, he wants his supporters to choose sides.
As Democratic presidential candidates debate whether to “go low” or “go high” in countering Trump, I’m not one who believes in mirroring Trump’s indignities. That won’t work for any non-demagogue. After their ruinous experience with demagogues like Cleon, Athenians ultimately addressed the reign of demagogues not through plays but through constitutional punishments. Under a system enacted several years after Cleon’s death, a politician charged with “having proposed a measure contrary to democratic principles and to Athens’ laws” could be ostracized by a majority of the voters for 10 years.
It’s not a far leap to “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Read more from Outlook: