Cleon, Trump, and the Goodness of Demagoguery: An Exchange

There are times that the exchanges in the comments section are sufficiently interesting as to become worthy of their own post. I thought this exchange is one of those. The exchange is between Fred Baumann, who wrote this essay for us previously, and Bernard Dobski about Dobski’s essay. It’s unfortunate that more of our intellectual debates don’t have this character:

Baumann: “In view of the fact that Trump, in my view at least, attempted usurpation of power through the Eastman memo and the pressure on the Vice President not to register the legally certified results of a national election, associating him with the ideal of benign demagoguery has some of the air of “he made the trains run on time.” But even leaving Trump aside, the argument seems unrealistic to me. That is because demagogues operate by creating fear and distrust in their own partisans as well as, of course, in their enemies. Thus Cleon, in the Mytilenean debate, constantly infantilizes his audience, telling them not to trust clever speakers but only to trust him. The result is people afraid to deliberate, blindly partisan, denouncing each other and sometimes going beyond that, out of sheer fear and rage. That is, the end result is Corcyra, where only party mattered. Thus Obama, a slicker demagogue, gave the Republicans permission to go bonkers, and Trump returned the favor to the Democrats. Hence the current, increasingly dangerous, state of our domestic politics. I fear that the kind of “just-right” pre-Demosthenean demagoguery praised here is a phantom of the library, not a genuine possibility, at least not for us.”

Dobski: Thank you for taking the time to read and engage my piece. I share your view of Cleon’s impact on public deliberation and, in the 2018 piece of mine referenced in the column, I draw a comparison between Cleon’s negative impact on public discourse and that of Trump. I am under no illusions about the negative effects of much of Trump’s demagoguery. But I am also not of the view that just because Trump did something it is, solely by virtue of Trump’s involvement, bad. Under healthier political conditions, I would be inclined to adopt Hamilton’s posture towards demagoguery. But given the many threats to republican institutions and norms (note: small “r” republicanism here), given the fact that so few of our citizens have any sense, understanding of, or taste for republicanism and its virtues, given the threats that come from opposing the extension of democracy and the opinion of the “majority” on any number of political, social, moral, and religious issues, I think we need to take seriously the possible benefits that can be drawn from the kind of demagoguery that can be advanced on behalf of republicanism. To be clear, I want my fellow citizens to be exposed to the rational arguments in favor of republicanism, arguments that should appeal to those on the right and the left. But in light of the obstacles noted above, I fear the weakness of reason alone in getting that conversation started or in providing itself with an opportunity to do its salutary work. Cleon had many flaws, but his rhetoric also made possible a victory that could (and should) have ended the war on terms favorable to Athenian imperial interests. Just so, some of Trump’s demagogic populism made it possible to rehabilitate notions and sentiments critical to our political health. It may well be that the proposal I advance in my column comes from the library, but surely you would not object to the wisdom of the ages informing our practical politics. Again, thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughtful comments.

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