But what, actually, are people accusing Trump of when they accuse him of demagoguery? It’s not simply Biffery or buffoonery or baboonery; it’s something more contextualized. More systemic. More dangerous. To call Trump a “demagogue” is to do two things at once: to dismiss him as a political candidate and amplify him as a political threat. That is appropriate, because the key thing about demagogues, historically, is that they have been people who, by way of their very popularity, threaten the populace. They undermine the stability of a “by the people” form of government particularly by turning “the people” against each other. They represent a danger not just to electoral outcomes or political parties, but to democracy itself.
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“Demagogue,” as a term—“demos,” the people, and “agogos,” leader—is pretty much as old as democracy is. It was born, like so many others of our most effective insults, in ancient Athens. And despite its anodyne etymology, it almost instantly took on a negative connotation: In Greece, the demagogue was not just a leader of people, but a leader who led, specifically, by bullying/cajoling/converting charisma into influence. He was a populist who appealed, in particular, to the lower classes. As Aristotle wrote of Cleon, a tanner, “He was the first who shouted on the public platform, who used abusive language and who spoke with his cloak girt around him, while all the others used to speak in proper dress and manner.”
Aristotle described Cleon and his fellow platform-shouters as “gadflies,” which captured not just how annoying he found them to be, but also how destructive: When large animals are pestered into a frenzy, one thing that can result is a stampede that sends them, collectively, over a cliff. For Aristotle, demagogues—people who used democracy, he felt, against itself—were potential threats to the political system he and his fellow democracy-designers were trying to build. “Revolutions in democracies,” he declared, “are generally caused by the intemperance of demagogues.”
The Athenian democracy did, in its way, survive. But its philosopher’s fear of demagogues, and of the vague threat they suggested of revolution from within, extended into the modern world. It is Charles I, arguing (unsuccessfully) for the monarchy and for his life in Eikon Basilike, who is generally credited with re-introducing the term into English. (Whereupon John Milton, as both an avid republican and perhaps an even more avid inventor of language, dismissed it as a “Goblin word,” sniffing: “The King by his leave cannot coine English as he could Money, to be current.”)
But while the word proved its utility as both a political description and an epithet, it also, thus anglicized, lost some of the Aristotelian certainty that had defined it in earlier ages. Latham’s A Dictionary of the English Language, a re-print of Doctor Johnson’s sweeping version from 1755, defines “demagogue” as “ringleader of the rabble” but also, secondarily, as a “popular and factious orator.” A New Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1867, lists “demagogue” as “a leader of the people,” but goes on to suggest that the term is “applied to a factious or seditious leader.” Trollope, in his 1855 novel The Warden, demurred: “Now I will not say that the archdeacon is strictly correct in stigmatizing John Bold as a demagogue, for I hardly know how extreme must be a man’s opinions before he can be justly so called.”