Stephen F. Knott is the author of The Lost Soul of the Presidency.
Donald Trump was everything critics of a populist presidency, particularly Alexander Hamilton, worried about—a demagogue who displayed “talents for low intrigue” and practiced the “little arts of popularity.” Hamilton and James Madison believed that the ability of demagogues to flatter the people and appeal to their prejudices presented a constant threat to republics. While the “deliberate sense of the community” should govern, republics must be particularly be alert to demagogues who exploit transient passions “which the people may receive from the arts of men who flatter their prejudices,’ impairing the prospects for “cool and sedate reflection.” Demagogues prey on divisive issues fraught with passion, seeking to banish reason and reflection from the public square and enhance their political prospects. The nation’s 45th president was such a man.
Trump and Trumpism was nonetheless defended by a small cadre of scholars including Joseph Bessette, who argued that “Donald Trump is not” [emphasis in the original] the type of demagogue the American founders feared. According to Bessette, Trump was “neither a military despot nor a demagogic tyrant. Despots and tyrants suppress freedom.” Bessette wrote these comments prior to Trump’s instigation of the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Perhaps Trump’s efforts to overturn an election prompted some sober second thoughts on Bessette’s part regarding Trump and Trumpism.
That said, Trump’s defenders are correct to note that the 45th president was hardly the nation’s first demagogic president. They are also right to observe that many scholars celebrated demagoguery when it served a progressive political agenda. Sadly, both Trump’s defenders and some of his critics offer a malleable definition of demagoguery that renders the term meaningless – turning a blind eye to demagoguery or simply dismissing its dangers when the cause is “just.”
Nothing to Fear
One of the most demagogic presidents of the twentieth century is also one routinely praised by scholars of the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt used his “Fireside chats” and other venues to argue that the forces arrayed against his administration were traitorous, ungodly, and selfish. The President claimed that his critics were “privileged princes … thirsting for power” and in some cases even “would be dictators,” intent on creating a “new despotism.” These were “selfish men, jealous men, fearful men,” “big chiselers,” who were also “rumor-mongers” and “poison peddlers.”
Unlike Abraham Lincoln, who believed his opponents prayed to the same God, FDR’s opponents were the personification of evil. These “doubting Thomases,” were “prophets of evil,” no better than the biblical “money-changers.” They were intent on erecting a “palace of privilege” and if FDR was denied a second term in 1936, the nation would not make it to the “promised land.” His Republican opponents had subjected the country to “nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge.”
As war approached FDR accused his critics of traitorous conduct. They were “Copperheads,” “enemies of American peace” a “Fifth Column,” operating on par with “spies, saboteurs and traitors.” They circulated “undiluted poison,” serving in effect as Hitler’s “secret emissaries,” or Hitler’s “dupes among us.” These “bogus patriots,” were “noisy traitors” and “betrayers of America” as well as “betrayers of Christianity.” In his State of the Union address in 1944, Roosevelt warned that a Republican victory that November would herald the rise of fascism in the United States. Harry Truman made the same accusation in his “whistlestop” campaign of 1948, a campaign romanticized as retail politics at its best.
All this vitriol, and more, was directed against American citizens, including journalists, members of Congress, and the Supreme Court. Yet Roosevelt’s academic supporters chose either to ignore his demagoguery, or in some cases praise it as a necessary means to achieving a more just economic and political order. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Clinton Rossiter commended FDR’s rhetoric, as have countless contemporary chroniclers of his presidency. Erwin Hargrove concluded that while FDR used “manipulations and distortions” and “artifice and misleading demagoguery at times,” he was not a demagogue. Rossiter applauded Roosevelt for demonstrating that the President can “compel discussion on his own terms” and “shout down any other voice . . . in the land.” One of Roosevelt’s more laudatory biographers, James MacGregor Burns, condemned the lingering “Madisonian dread of the man on horseback.”
With their praise of FDR’s demagoguery, and their penchant for ranking him as one of the nation’s greatest presidents, these scholars assisted in removing the guardrails delineating acceptable presidential conduct. They, along with the Presidents they celebrated, gradually destroyed the norms and traditions that sustained and restrained presidential conduct. They normalized a conception of the presidency that thrives on division, with its appeals to a base large enough to win elections, rather than starting from the notion of a common good and then trying to appeal to the entire electorate. These scholars have, perhaps unknowingly and unwittingly, made it acceptable for a president to scapegoat. Most importantly, they ignored the fact that while demagoguery sways public opinion and works at the ballot box, it can also destroy a nation.
Donald Trump was precisely what James Madison had in mind when he observed that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Trump had no morals to check his behavior, and progressive scholars failed to contemplate what might go wrong if the tactics of a Franklin Roosevelt were employed by someone devoid of any moral compass.
Presidential demagoguery continues to have its academic defenders. Professor Charles Zug contends that demagoguery can be deployed “in more or less legitimate ways,” and that one must avoid “moralistic” condemnations of demagoguery. Zug is echoing Jeffrey Tulis, who has observed that demagoguery “might be good if it were a means to a good end, such as preservation of a decent nation” or “prosecution of a just war.” The standard by which to judge the appropriateness of demagoguery, or to delineate the line between a statesman and a demagogue, can only be determined by an assessment of the “purposes and effects” of the leader’s actions.
In the minds of Donald Trump’s supporters, the purposes and effects of Trump’s demagoguery were entirely just and required by the circumstances. Trump’s words were employed in the service of preserving a “decent nation,” his followers believed, and perhaps in his own twisted way Trump did as well. As one of the insurrection’s leaders put it on January 6, 2021, “today is 1776.”
A credible rejection of Trumpism requires an unconditional denunciation of presidential demagoguery regardless of the purpose. Presidents may believe they are marshalling the “masses” for great deeds by employing demagoguery, but the price for this summons to arms is often paid by those out of step with the President and his base – not to mention the cost of undermining the primacy of the rule of law. These calls inevitably lead Presidents to designate their domestic opponents as somehow un-American or even traitors, a tactic employed by Presidents as varied as Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Richard Nixon.
Donald Trump was set apart from all these presidents. He was in a league of his own as a destructive demagogue. But his path to power was enabled by presidential scholars who gave a wink and a nod to his demagogic predecessors. A quick review of polls of scholars ranking presidential “greatness” confirms that demagoguery in defense of progressivism is seen as no vice. Celebrating demagoguery due to your ideological sympathies is an odious practice for a profession devoted to reason and the life of the mind.
Our two greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, understood the merits of presidential silence, holding fast to their belief that republican government can prevail without resort to demagoguery. In fact, Lincoln’s example proves that one can conduct a war (the costliest in American history) without resorting to demagoguery but instead appealing to the “better angels of our nature.”
The president takes an oath to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” not to stoke public passions. A recovery of the constitutional presidency, one respectful of the rule of law and appreciative of the role of the president as a unifying head of state, rather than a partisan firebrand, remains within our reach. An appropriate way to begin this restoration would be to end the celebration of presidential demagogues of all persuasions and to reject “nuanced” scholarly arguments extolling the virtues of demagoguery.