How to become a demagogue

Why are demagogues disparaged so? One person’s demagogue is another person’s enlightened teller of truth to power. With global warming and the Great Extinction on our hands, maybe we could use a demagogue or two to stir the pot a little and see where populism might take us if applied to man’s abuse of the environment.


Huey Long advocated free college and confiscating millionaires’ fortunes long before the current crop of Presidential candidates.

So far no one has figured out how to harness populism to ecological activism.  Populism always offers a better life for people and most environmentalists want to take away everything which makes us comfortable and happy.  So it easy for populist demagogues to rail against environmental strictures.

In hopes that one of you, my dear readers, will become or encourage the union of populism and environmentalism, I submit these tips for becoming a demagogue.

One best selling historian traces all American populist demagogues back to religion.  Specifically the Presbyterian and other Calvinists who sparked the American Revolution.  These preachers challenged the authority of the ruling mainstream religions of their day. This challenging of authority was transferred from church autocrats to British kings by their followers.  And America resulted.

This movement, known as the Great Awakening was followed by a populist and religious revolt in the 1830s and 1840s known as the Second Great Awakening.  This led to the Civil War.

More recently demagogues have not needed religion to excite their followers.  But the hell and brimstone preachers established the mold for all demagogues to come. Demagogues appeal to emotion, denigrate their enemies with lies and insults and promise an impossible world which their followers will enjoy.

Huey Long is often called the quintessential demagogue.  Today Trump is cited as the essence of demagogue.  Others contend his opponents are adept at the tools of demagoguery.

But we always label as demagogues those with whom we disagree.  Today the opponents of Trump use all the tricks of demagoguery. If they were only more successful, we would label them demagogues.

Maybe all major  social and political revolutions require demagogues. If so, what can we learn from today’s and yesterday’s demagogues to help catalyze needed change.  Especially the changes needed to stop the greatest threat we have ever faced, the destruction and befouling of our planet.

So what does a demagogue have that most environmentalists don’t? They are skilled in oratory, flattery and invective; evasive in discussing many issues; appealing to the passions rather than the reason of the public; and arousing racial, religious, and class prejudices.  They are masters of the masses.

Demagogues have appeared in democracies since ancient Athens. Demagogue roughly translates as “leader of the mob.” They exploit a fundamental weakness in democracy: because ultimate power is held by the people, it is possible for the people to give that power to someone who appeals to the lowest common denominator of a large segment of the population.

Demagogues usually advocate immediate, forceful action to address a crisis while accusing moderate and thoughtful opponents of weakness or disloyalty.

James Fenimore Cooper in 1838 identified four fundamental characteristics of demagogues:

  • They fashion themselves as a member of the common people, opposed to the elites.
  • Their politics depends on a visceral connection with the people, which greatly exceeds ordinary political popularity.
  • They manipulate this connection, and the raging popularity it affords, for their own benefit and ambition.
  • They threaten or outright break established rules of conduct, institutions, and even the law.

We could employ just about all those tools of demagogues to address the destruction of our planet.  The only problem is that demagogues usually appeal to the poor and ignorant and promise them the moon.  Those who realize the peril our planet is in are not usually poor and ignorant and promising them material wealth won’t help the planet.

So maybe uniting demagoguery and environmentalism won’t save the planet, but we had better find something that does.  And if demagoguery will help, it’s worth a last desperate try.