Cover Story - Spring 2018

A Vacuum at the Center


How a demagogue resembles a typhoon, and why it matters to the future of the republic

Photo illustration; Alamy

By W. Robert Connor

March 5, 2018


The politician stands before a roaring crowd, or dominates a TV debate, or fires up his already ardent followers with storms of tweets. Is he a populist or a demagogue? The terms are often treated as interchangeable, although populist has today become far more widely used. A look at the origins of the two words, though, shows the importance of distinguishing between them, especially now in the era of Donald Trump. What the political thinkers of the past feared about demagogy has become the most pressing question in American political life: Is our president another of the populists who come and go through American history, or is he a demagogue and hence a clear and present danger to the Republic? The distinction between the two words is best understood by going back to classical antiquity.

On Populist and Populism

Sometimes language, especially the language we use to discuss politics, is a $20 bill found on a sidewalk. We have no idea where it came from and don’t care how old or new it is. We simply pick it up and use it for whatever purpose is at hand. In our current political situation, populism is like that $20 bill: it seems a lucky find, enough to get us through an otherwise difficult patch. It’s reassuring, too, as a reminder that our problems are not unique to this moment. Populism has been seen before. In America, it wins support, then fades away, then recurs in new forms as time goes on: the Know Nothing Party (a.k.a. the Native American Party) of the 1850s, William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), the America First movement in the years leading up to the Second World War, and many others. And don’t forget the man whose image is on that $20 bill: Andrew Jackson, president from 1829 to 1837, our archetypal populist, although it was not a word he ever heard. Populism is a hybrid, the first part of which comes from the Latin populus, the people, while the ending echoes Greek nouns terminating in -ismos. In English, words with this ending regularly imply a system of belief or an ideology—communism, socialism, capitalism, fascism, and so on. Hence populism hints at policies and programs, or at least a claim of having some coherent political thought behind it.

American history is full of movements that may in retrospect be labeled populist, but the word is hard to find before the time of the Farmers’ Alliance, an agrarian reform movement of the 1880s that turned into the People’s Party or the Populists in 1892. That’s when populism was coined. For a long time, this term stayed right there, confined to that context, and was rarely used in a more general way. But in the 1960s, the vocabulary of populism took off. Part of the impulse came from a broadening of semantic range to include what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a person who seeks to represent or appeal to the interests of ordinary people.” The earliest example of this usage in the OED is from 1961. Now, amid political turbulence in Europe and the United States, the word’s range has expanded to characterize the uneasy mood of contemporary voters. Thus, we hear of “populist views and sentiments,” “the populist mindset,” and a “populist Zeitgeist”

The vocabulary of populism has taken over much of the territory once occupied by demagogue. Although caution is needed when using the Ngram Viewer capacity of Google Books, it shows the dominance, in English-language books, of demagogue over populist from 1800 to 1970, followed by a surge in populist and a steady decline in demagogue until 2000, the most recent year for data. The two are at a ratio of approximately 9:1 in recent Google books. A similar pattern emerges when populism is compared on Ngram with demagogy and demagoguery. Switching to Google Search, one finds that populist is more commonly used in connection with recent politicians. “Donald J. Trump populist,” for instance, appears about three times more often than “Donald J. Trump demagogue.”

The objective tone of populist and populism seems to hold out a tool to help political scientists explore the forces that drive much of contemporary politics. Demagogue and demagogy, by contrast, sound prejudicial. The jury seems already to have spoken once the charge of demagogy is pronounced. No wonder, then, that the word has gone out of fashion, while the seemingly up-to-date and ostensibly objective populist and populism prevail in today’s political analyses. These terms have achieved prevalence for a reason: the need for a vocabulary to describe the broad appeal of certain movements, here and abroad, that have surprising, puzzling, and sometimes frightening implications. At this moment, populism appeals to our preference for an unprejudiced way to bring to light what lurks below the surface of these forms of politics: feelings of neglect, disappointment, frustration, demoralization; distrust of elites; fear and even hatred of difference. These feelings are visceral, often hidden beneath the level of conscious reflection. Such emotions come to the surface when the correct words are spoken. But are populist and populism the words to do the trick?

There is reason for caution. The terms often cannot stand without qualification. Populism, for instance, when applied to contemporary politics, begs for adjectives, as when Jürgen Habermas warns against “authoritarian/populist leadership” or when others deplore “right-wing,” “nativist,” “racist,” “xenophobic,” “authoritarian,” “alt-right,” “bogus,” “fake,” “opportunistic,” “autocratic,” and even “demagogic” populism. The term agglutinates, attaching other terms to itself, until we stumble over them, as when a writer in Vox refers to “European style–nationalist populism and all of its bigoted and Islamophobic overtones.”

Demagogue and demagogy, by contrast, seem to repel qualifiers. Although demagogy may look like populism, borrow populist rhetoric, or copy populist policies, at its core it is, as we shall see, a distinct species in political zoology. A demagogue is a demagogue, pure and simple.

By now, despite the need for caution, populist has grown so much in appeal that I suspect we would find it hard to imagine getting along without it. Yet in the long history of political thought, this expansion of populist discourse is a recent phenomenon. The authors of The Federalist Papers as well as Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and many other political thinkers got along without the term. They made do with demagogue and its relatives or drew on analogies from history, such as the struggles in Rome between the Populares and the Optimates, and the history of popular leaders, ancient and modern. Even without populist and populism, they developed a rich political discourse, of which demagogue and its relatives were an important part.

The Origin of Demagogy in Ancient Greece

Demagogy first appears during the war between Athens and the Peloponnesians in the late fifth century BCE in the person of the Athenian Cleon, who was probably the first of a new breed of Athenian politicians. These new politicians were not scions of respected families of inherited wealth and high standing in the society. They had not, it seems, developed networks of influential friends and allies, or proved their worth by rising through the ranks and demonstrating their manly courage in the military. Each of them had probably gained the wealth and leisure for politics from commercial activities, but it was new wealth, often despised across the social spectrum. The death of Pericles in 429 BCE and the increasingly evident failure of his strategy to bring the Peloponnesian War to a prompt and successful conclusion presented an opportunity for new forms of leadership.

Each year people from the countryside moved behind the sheltering walls of the city while Peloponnesian troops ravaged the land of Attica, and then withdrew when their supplies ran out. Athenian sailors retaliated on long voyages, attacking towns along the coast of the Peloponnese. This war of attrition took a terrible toll on the Athenians, reflected, for example, in a fragment of a speech by the orator Andocides:

Never again may we see the colliers coming in from the hills to the town—the sheep and oxen and the wagons—the poor women and old men—the laborers arming themselves! Never more may we eat wild greens and chervil!

The consequences of the crowding in the city were both physical—hunger, and ultimately plague—and psychological, as Thucydides showed in his account of the plague in his history of the Peloponnesian War. The effects, however, went beyond those afflictions. From these circumstances arose the opportunity for Cleon to differentiate himself in every possible way from his predecessors. He seems not to have had any fresh solution for Athens’s difficulties, but he spoke and acted in unprecedented ways. The Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, in a capsule history of Athenian politics, describes him in this way:

When Pericles died … the head of the People was Cleon, son of Cleaenetus, who greatly corrupted the people by impulsive onslaughts; he was the first to shout and slander on the podium, and made his speeches, with his cloak rolled up, even though everyone else spoke in a proper manner.

Cleon shouts; he bawls; his voice cracks. It’s the new show in town, constant entertainment, hard not to watch.

No existing term seemed adequate to characterize this style of political leadership. Cleon was certainly not a hegemōn, leader, in any traditional sense; neither was he (yet, at least) a tyrannos, a tyrant. A new word needed to be coined. Someone, perhaps the comic poet Aristophanes, took dēmos, a word spanning populace, the electorate, ordinary people, and combined it with -agōgos, an ending used to form words of many sorts—from the slave who leads a child to a teacher ( paidagōgos, pedagogue) to a basket for hauling dung (a kopragōgos). The result was a compound, like dēmokratia, democracy. Although the coinage may sound neutral, its early uses suggest hostility to an unprecedented and untested form of leadership.

This is clear in the earliest extant uses in Aristophanes’s comedy The Knights, first produced in 424 BCE. Here the term is applied to Sausage Seller, a character in the play. A slave of old man Demos (the populace or the electorate) tries to persuade Sausage Seller to challenge Paphlagon, a crook who has wormed his way into Demos’s affections. Sausage Seller demurs, claiming he is not qualified for such a position. After all, he says, “I can only read and write real bad.” The slave responds:

That is what may stand in your way, knowing how to read, even “real bad.” A demagogue shouldn’t be either educated or honest; he has to be an ignoramus who will turn your stomach. … You’ve got all it takes to be a demagogue: a disgusting voice, low birth—you’re from the agora—everything necessary for politics. (Translations of Aristophanes are based on those edited by Eugene O’Neill Jr.)

When the crook Paphlagon comes onstage, he speaks perfect demagogue—profanity, threat, accusations, hyperbole, and invective:

By the Twelve Gods! Too long have you been conspiring against Demos. What’s this? A cup from Chalcis? That means a plot for Chalcis to revolt. You will be killed and butchered, you pair of scoundrels.

It does not take long to recognize that Paphlagon is, as the manuscripts indicate, a caricature of Cleon. Eventually, however, he is outmaneuvered and outshouted by the hawker of sausages, who becomes the new Demagogue-in-Chief. He has every one of Paphlagon’s vices in even more extreme form.

Aristophanes loved such political satire. Thinly veiled attacks on Cleon’s demagogy continue in other of his comedies, notably The Wasps, first performed in 422 BCE. There, Aristophanes brings into focus a major source of Cleon’s power, his domination of the court system. The plot turns on the devotion of an old man to jury service, and to the prosecutions Cleon instigates. Only with great difficulty does the old man’s son, who loathes Cleon, wean him from his addictive folly.

The courts provided an important source of power, but Athenian demagogues could not succeed without dominating the citizens’ legislative body, the assembly. That is where the near-contemporary Thucydides situates Cleon in his narrative. In his account of the year 425 BCE, he presents Cleon in action in the assembly, giving him an epic-sounding patronymic (“son of Cleaenetus”) and calling him an anēr, which would normally mean “a real man, a man of distinction.” But to it Thucydides adds dēmagōgos, thereby producing a paradoxical phrase. It may at first sound like praise, or like one of Thucydides’s formulaic introductions of a major character. More likely it is scorn and sarcasm, using upscale language for a decidedly downscale politician, as if he were saying “a man distinguished for his lack of distinction.”

What Thucydides meant by calling Cleon a demagogue becomes clear when he notes that the leader was at that time “most persuasive” with the majority of the citizens. The superlative echoes a phrase in an earlier episode when Cleon advocates extreme brutality against the rebellious city of Mytilene and is characterized as “the most violent of the citizens and at that time by far to the populace the most persuasive.”

In Thucydides’s view, violence and persuasiveness go hand in hand when a demagogue such as Cleon is in action. When the assembly debates how to take advantage of an opportunity that arises after crack Spartan troops are bottled up on an island not far from Pylos in the Peloponnese, Cleon boasts that if he were on the scene, the Athenians would capture those Spartans within 20 days, and “if they had real men for generals … and if he himself had been in command, he would have done it.” Both the insult and his promise are outrageous, given the tactical difficulties of such an operation and the Spartans’ reputation for fighting to the death. Cleon’s promise seems to blow up in his face when the general Nicias turns over his command to him. But no: Cleon brings it off. For all their bluster, demagogues do not always fail.

Thucydides also exposes Cleon’s anti-intellectualism, representing him as telling the assembly,

ordinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows. The latter are always wanting to appear wiser than the laws … and by such behavior too often ruin their country.

Cleon was a powerful and skillful speaker, though he does not appear as someone trained in rhetoric—perhaps quite deliberately so. Crude speech distances him from the Sophists, and from all intellectuals, including his predecessor, the eloquent Pericles.

Given Thucydides’s and Aristophanes’s characterization of Cleon, it is no wonder that he became the Greeks’ archetypal demagogue, and that by the end of the fifth century BCE this term had become securely established. No close equivalent, however, appears to have rooted itself into Latin soil, where popularis could be enlisted to work in a pejorative way. The word demagogue skipped over Latin but in the 14th century landed in the study of Nicole Oresme, the learned bishop of Lisieux, France. Still, the Académie française did not recognize it until 1762. Across the channel, it was in use by 1649, when Milton spoke of “the affrightment of this Goblin word.” It has continued in circulation to the present, though it now seems like a tattered $2 bill, still legal tender, but used only sporadically.

Cleon and demagogy may now be fading out of our cultural memory, but they can still improve our understanding of politics, especially if we take one further step and examine a recurring theme in Aristophanes’s The Knights: Cleon as an extreme meteorological event.

Storms, Hurricanes, and Typhoons

In The Knights, Paphlagon-Cleon and Sausage Seller turn political discourse into a storm of shouts and a whirlwind of accusations, threats, and promises. Demagogues bluster. Aristophanes saw that and made storm winds a theme of this comedy; for example, Paphlagon threatens to attack Sausage Seller like something that throws both land and sea into disorder.

Such meteorological threats add up to something more than the familiar characterization of a politician as a blowhard. The meteorological theme is well established when the Athenian knights who form the chorus of the play step aside to address the audience as if in their own words, praising Aristophanes because he shares their hatred of Cleon and his ilk, and because “he boldly braves both waterspouts and hurricanes”—that is, the threats and bombast of the demagogue. What is here translated as waterspouts is in Greek typhōs, a double-edged word, which connotes both wild storms and their personification as Typhon, a mythological embodiment of cosmic disorder and the source of our word typhoon. Hesiod describes this monster as the child of disgruntled Earth and hellish Tartarus. He was hundred-headed, Hesiod said, and

inside each one of these horrible heads there were voices that threw out every sort of horrible sound, for sometimes it was speech such as the gods could understand, but at other times, the sound of a bellowing bull, proud-eyed and furious beyond holding, or again like a lion shameless in cruelty, or again it was like the barking of dogs, a wonder to listen to. (Based on a translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White.)

The Greeks also saw in Typhon a metaphor for a type of personality, as Socrates indicates in Plato’s Phaedrus, when he emphasizes how important it is for him “to know whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon or a gentler and simpler creature, to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature” (translation by H. N. Fowler).

How Demagogy Works

When we moderns hear the word typhoon, we do not think of the Greek mythological figure who has lent his name to the phenomenon. The metaphor, however, helps characterize demagogy and reveals something the Greeks only hinted at, the near vacuum at the center of such phenomena. Typhoons and many other extreme weather events suck into themselves whatever they encounter, grind it up, then spew out a trail of destruction. That is how demagogy works and is one major difference between it and populism.

At the core of demagogy is a vacuum. That is not usually the case with populism, since populist leaders typically have firm commitments to specific policies. They stand for something. It can be asked whether what they propose seems wise or otherwise. Of the demagogue, however, a more fundamental question needs to be asked: whether there is any inner coherence at all, for a demagogue can blow hot and cold, this way and that, adopt phrases or policies from one source one day and repudiate them the next. There may be nothing at the core except a vacuum that sucks into itself clichés, slogans, facts, factoids and fabrications, fragments of ideologies, policies developed by others, sometimes those others themselves—whoever and whatever might help him gain power at any given moment. Then, at his whim, he disgorges it all. The political vacuum at the core of demagogy, moreover, may correspond to, and perhaps derives from, a moral vacuum, the absence of concern for anything other than the self.

It is sufficient for the demagogue to move from one issue to the next, without any long-term vision, provided each individual episode fires up his followers. Cleon, for example, seems not to have needed consistent policies to dominate the Athenian electorate. Instead, the ancient sources emphasize his disruptive discourse and inexhaustible supply of venom and vitriol. He appears not as a man with a policy, but as someone with visceral appeal and a powerful mode of self-presentation.

Demagogues, unlike populist leaders, do not have to stand on a well-crafted platform or espouse a consistent program. Their strength comes from their skill at expressing and manipulating emotions. Demagogy, then, can be at home on either the left or the right of the political spectrum, or it can oscillate between these poles. Such oscillation is one way to distinguish a demagogue from a populist and, when it occurs, is especially revealing about how demagogy works. A demagogue can feel right at home with inconsistency, since his goal is power and his means of attaining it is the manipulation of the fears and passions of his followers. These followers may not be troubled if he swings from one position to another, not even if his policies turn out to run counter to their interests, for they are attracted to him not by a belief in the efficacy of his policies but by the emotional satisfaction they experience in his presence. His source of power is a not-to-be-underestimated skill at expressing and manipulating emotions.

The populist looks outward to draw on the assumed wisdom of ordinary people. The demagogue need not look at all. He trusts his impulses, lets them well up, doesn’t turn them over in his mind searching for unintended consequences, or pause to contemplate complexity. When he sniffs frustration, dismay, or disillusionment among the citizenry, he does not just nod in recognition or express bland sympathy. He uses a powerful discourse that models these emotions in words and gestures; he acts out their grievances, transforms them into anger, stokes that anger into fiery rage, which he then directs against any person or institution standing between him and power. Under such circumstances, the give and take of normal politics turns into expressive politics, where power devolves on whoever most skillfully exploits these feelings.

Expressive Politics

Demagogy, then, can be understood as a form of expressive politics, since it depends on an ability to give voice to the emotions and discontents of segments of the citizenry. This is no small achievement, requiring unusual skill and attunement to the emotions of the populace, and helps explain why the demagogue can remain powerful even when his actions run counter to the interests of his followers. In Athens, for example, nothing would have been more beneficial to ordinary citizens than peace with the Peloponnesians. Yet Cleon impeded it, as Sausage Seller insists in Aristophanes’s The Knights:

You pretend to love [old man Demos] and for eight years you have seen him housed in casks, in crevices and dovecotes, where he is blinded with the smoke, and you lock him in without pity; Archeptolemus [a negotiator] brought peace and you tore it to ribbons; the envoys who come to propose a truce you drive from the city with kicks in their arses.

Cleon’s skillful exploitation of the emotions of the Athenian electorate kept him in power until his death in a battle with the Peloponnesians in 422 BCE. Much of his success was due to his development of a discourse well crafted to evoke feelings of discouragement and demoralization. Unlike other politicians of the day, he seemed to understand the disillusionment with Periclean strategy, and perhaps with politics itself. Citizens’ disillusionment with politics may mean they do not care very much about policies, legislative successes, or the like. The moral vacuum of the demagogue matches, in other words, the absence of hope in the electorate.

Seen in this light, demagogy is the antithesis of populism, with its message of hope. It is important, then, that both terms be retained in our political lexicon, but as antonyms, not synonyms. That is especially important over the long run, since the consequences of demagogy can be so grave.

The Consequences of Demagogy

A populist may carry the day with an ill-considered or poorly crafted proposal. But any damage that populism causes often fades once the immediate crisis passes. The damage demagogy inflicts can be more long-lasting. Thoughtful analysts of political change, ancient and modern, have recognized the danger Alexander Hamilton noted in the first of The Federalist Papers:

History will teach us that … of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.

Fears of autocracy have roots reaching back to “the Great Demagogue,” as W. B. Yeats called Oliver Cromwell, and to ancient thinking about the tendency of regimes to change from one form to another. Plato discusses just such a process in the Republic. That idea is already present decades earlier in the so-called debate about constitutions in Herodotus’s Histories, where Darius, the future Persian monarch, is imagined as arguing that strife among leaders vying for first place “goes on until one of the people rises to stop such men. He therefore becomes the people’s idol, and being their idol is made their monarch” (translation by A. D. Godley).

Are the fears of these political thinkers hyperbolic? Let’s hope so, but the demagogue knows how to tap sources of power often overlooked by conventional politicians. Since power is sweet, the demagogue is more likely to hoard it for himself than to relinquish it to others. The result can be a full-fledged autocracy, or the gradual attrition of the institutions and practices upon which liberty depends.

Demagogy, understood in this way, is far more dangerous than populism. It has the ability to transform itself into autocracy if one by one the institutions that resist the aggrandizement of power are eroded or destroyed. That, I believe, is what is at stake at the present moment.

For a long time, I thought of demagogy as a remote phenomenon, revealing about ancient civic life and inviting occasional comparisons and reflections on contemporary politics. The stakes, frankly, did not seem very high, nor did it matter much if one used archaic-sounding demagogy or the more modern and objective-sounding populism. The truly pressing problems, I thought, were not linguistic or even institutional, but the concentration of wealth, racial and gender equality, the need for better health care, protection of the environment, diplomacy to avoid war. Over the past year or so, however, all this has changed. If President Trump is indeed a demagogue, citizens must respond to the erosion of the institutions on which our Republic depends: a free press, an independent judiciary, free and fair elections, and, as the title of Aristophanes’s The Knights reminds us, a military that resists demagogy. If the fear of a transformation of American republicanism into autocracy is not irrational, the most pressing issue is not how closely President Trump resembles Cleon, or whether one likes or dislikes his style and actions, but how demagogy can be stopped.

When a demagogue takes power, a society needs all the help it can find, and laughter is one antidote. In The Knights, after all the shouting between Sausage Seller and Paphlagon, which provides good comic grist, Demos changes from a silly old man easily manipulated by the crook Paphlagon to someone very much in charge. The turning point comes when Paphlagon arrogantly compares himself to Themistocles, the great Athenian hero in the battle of Salamis more than 50 years before the play. His boast: “It’s a terrible thing that you slander me in front of Demos and the Athenians—me who has done more good things for the city, by Demeter, than Themistocles ever did.” Demagogues liken themselves to the great leaders of the past. They take the oath of office on a Bible once read by Abraham Lincoln, for example, and unconsciously fulfill what Lincoln foresaw in his 1838 address to the Springfield Lyceum:

Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.

Paphlagon’s comparison of himself to Themistocles provides Sausage Seller with the perfect opportunity to cut him down to size: “You dare to compare yourself to Themistocles, who found our city half empty and left it full to overflowing.” Demos agrees; he has had enough of the demagogue and lashes out: “Stop ranting! Too many times, in too many ways have you tricked me.”

That points to one way to deal with today’s Demagogue-in-Chief—accept his comparison of himself to Lincoln and judge him by that standard. But Aristophanes has more advice for us. Once Sausage Seller is on top, there is a shift in rhetorical tone. As the comedy draws to a close, there is no more shouting, no more slapstick, but an end of hostilities, and the union of Demos with Truce, personified as a beautiful young woman.

But wait: there’s one further twist. Before a dramatic resolution, the play must tell us what is to be done with Paphlagon: ostracism, a trial for high crimes and misdemeanors, exile, a stiff drink of hemlock, or an onstage whipping? None of the above. Instead, Aristophanes opts for role reversal. Sausage Seller wants the crooked demagogue, no doubt in real life a man of towering wealth and leisure, to make his living as he himself once did. The punishment, he says,

will be no big deal. He’ll follow my old trade, hawking by the gates sausages made of donkey and dog meat; alone and drunk, he’ll be ranting at the whores and he’ll drink the water drained from the public baths.

The conclusion provides a comic poet’s prescription for dealing with a demagogue—laugh at him, give the electorate time to remember history and recognize who has been fooling them, and quietly but firmly send him off to peddle wieners on the street. A happy ending!

W. Robert Connor is professor of classics emeritus at Princeton University and director emeritus of the National Humanities Center.

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