Saturday, July 16, 2011

It Ain't Easy Being A Demagogue

I’m consistently amazed at how well scholar Victor Davis Hanson can make ancient Greek history come alive and bring it forward to today’s parallels. Recently, he did a take on demagogues going back to the fourth-century original, Cleon. He then brought it forward to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in America. The original Greek word literally means “leader of the people.”

But the great Greek comedy writers quickly turned it into its modern meaning as a person who uses jealousy of the wealthy and successful, along with appeals to the masses, to advance his personal agenda.

Domestically, the word has most frequently been used to describe figures such as William Jennings Bryan, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and Sen. Huey “Kingfish” Long. Our demagogues were pikers compared to the experts such as Adolf Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung. A certain amount of charisma is required for a successful demagogue. Hanson points out that Jimmy Carter was more than a failure as a President. He was also a failure as a demagogue. He was boring, whiny and his speechifying skills were nonexistent. It wasn’t for want of trying, however, since Carter tried to attack three-martini lunches and luxurious private yachts, but he couldn’t get people to like him enough to hate the alleged “bad guys.”

Demagogues are good at pretending to be at one with the masses, even though they are far from it. FDR constantly chastised the rich, though he was not exactly the genuine American poverty-to-prominence story that his Vice President Harry Truman was. Barack Obama is not super-rich by any means, but he certainly isn’t a poor kid who made good as he would like people to believe he is. He has carried the “log cabin myth” far beyond its former boundaries. FDR and Obama both used the rule of stirring up popular anger against “the establishment.” Both were and are members of that very establishment. Both had the ability to wield immense power, including the redistribution of wealth.

As champions of the people, demagogues who are good at it use catch-phrases and exaggerations such as using alligators and moats to keep the huddled masses out of America. They have to paint pictures of starving poor children (ignoring the obesity crisis that they address entirely separately), and evoke plutocrats flying around in private jets. The demagogue must “share our pain” produced by the evil oil companies by making sure his tires are properly inflated, his car in good tune, and getting rid of those gas-guzzling old cars in exchange for a green vehicle.

The good demagogue must prove his mettle by rejecting demagoguery—except for his own, of course. Obama damns the habits of fat-cat corporate big-wigs and bankers, while spending more time on the golf course than all our former presidents combined. He says we must all tighten our belts while taking vacations that the rest of us can only dream of. He decries the use of private corporate jets while using Air Force One as if it were his own personal taxicab (a Prius, naturally). You must remember that the demagogue is always “the other guy.”

He says things like “we must bring a gun to a knife fight,” then condemns uncivil usage among Republicans when they describe an up-in-the-air electoral locus as “a target district.” He poses as the first “post-racial” President, but uses metaphors that picture his opponents as “making the down-and-out sit in the back of the bus.” He claims to be racially-neutral because he is of mixed ancestry, yet has his hand-picked attorney general call Americans cowards on race while describing his own grandmother as “a typical white person.”

Hanson also points out a facet of the demagogic personality that I hadn’t given much thought to. He says: “The demagogue, in messianic fashion, sees himself as a lone crusader taking on special interests, again, always on ‘behalf of the people.’ Almost everything is personalized in these cosmic struggles.” Which distinguishes him from FDR, and Reagan, for that matter. FDR and Reagan both used the pronoun “I” only when it involved an act specifically charged to the presidential power itself. Obama narcissistically uses “I,” “my,” “mine” as if he were the lone occupant of the executive branch. Most recently, he tried to steal the thunder of the SEAL team that captured and killed Osama bin Laden by constantly referring to what “I” did to effect the capture.

The good demagogue must also set himself up as the only reasonable person in town. That requires setting up straw men both to the left and right of himself so that he can take the “reasoned, middle position.” Likewise, he must denigrate anyone who disagrees with him as a lesser person than he himself is. Thus, Obama recently declared himself the only adult in a roomful of children. Then he told us all to “eat our peas.”

Hanson closes his treatise with words I wish I had thought of: “What impresses about Barack Obama is his ability to take an ancient art, refine it with an Ivy League veneer, and become a new, cool version of the old Cleon.”


Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk- I agree with everything in your post except for the title (l.o.l.) Or, maybe it is just a matter of Obama making it look easy.

However, recently, while trying to research the actual circumstances of Reagan raising taxes in his first term, I came across a liberal blog that was pushing just that point, probably due to a recent post in Politico. When I looked at the comments, it truly struck me how people on the left see their side as being just as correct as we do. For example, they will point to politicians wanting to wage wars without paying for them, blah, blah, blah. This is just a fancy way of describing the old adage "where you sit is where you stand" or the notion that two witnesses to an accident can see totally different facts.

Of course, being convinced of the rightness of my own beliefs, there is no question in my mind which side is right! ;-)

It also begs the age old question. Can this guy (Obama) actually believe any of what he is saying or is he just purposely lying? Probably a bit of both, I suspect.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: I think he believes what little he understands, and parrots the rest because he thinks he ought to. He'll never be a really top-notch demagogue because his most fiery speeches have the ring of the wannabe Southern preacher without any true passion behind them. Mostly he demagogues issues with all the fire of a second-rate college professor. Good demagogues attack their "enemies" with passion. Obama tells them to "eat their peas." I have to put Obama in the category of second-class demagogue, though he would love to be first-tier.

T-Rav said...

You know, for being a post-racial leader or something, Obama and his acolytes sure do like to bring up race whenever they're being challenged. I'm pretty sure one of them did it just yesterday; something about Obama's not being treated fairly with the debt crisis because he's black. Hey, I thought he transcended race stuff!

Unknown said...

T-Rav: I'm afraid we've only seen the tip of this iceberg. Obama hauled it out, humorously usually, during the 2008 campaign (I don't look like other Presidents), but it was always there. This time it's likely to get vicious. Class and race warfare are about all the Democrats have left, and they're likely to play them to the hilt.

AndrewPrice said...

That describes Obama all right -- he blasts people for something and then promptly does the very thing (verbally). Plus, he's very quick to try to excite the mob rather than speak to the people.

Unknown said...

Andrew: And it's the mob that most endangers the underpinnings of the Republic. Well said.

Joel Farnham said...


Obama has always struck me as a lousy actor given lines to read at the last second. I wish that someone knew how to hack into the TOTUS. It would be hilarious if during a live speech, he would say, "I am resigning today." Then the hard drive for it self-destruct. :-)

Unknown said...

Joel: I'd love to see that. The problem is that like everything else Obama says, he won't sound sincere. So nobody will actually believe he's resigning anyway. LOL

Joel Farnham said...


That is the beauty of it. All of the MSM would go ballistic. The hard drive self destructing would create all sorts of conspiracy theories mostly from the White House. We would be treated to an on going crisis eclipsing anything that POTUS wanted to convey.

It would also have the added benefit of Obama being wary of all teleprompters. :-)

Unknown said...

Joel: Rupert Murdoch did it! Do I win a prize for the first pre-revelation on a pre-event? LOL

Tehachapi Tom said...

You have put your finger,so to speak, right on this miserable excuse for a leader. His arrogance is truly second to none.
His self importance reminds me of Ambrose Bierce's Devils Dictionary definition of an egotist.
"Egotist; a person of poor taste more interested in himself than in me."
We have to get rid of this nightmare.
Lets hope America wakes up this time around.

Unknown said...

Tehachapi Tom: He also reminds me of the Bette Midler character in Beaches. After another hour-long session of harangues to her girlfriend including "I" and "me" in almost every sentence, Midler hesitates, and says: "Well, that's enough about me. Let's talk about you. What do you think about me?"

This administration is indeed a nightmare.

Post a Comment