By Robert Wilson
March 5, 2018
On 9/11, I worked for an outfit whose leader was, among other things, a historian. The morning after the attacks, dozens of us who were his colleagues gathered to hear him offer words of consolation and hope. His tone was neither angry nor bellicose but reflective. He did not dare to propose that history offers a template for the future, but his words were about the past nonetheless. He was old enough to remember vividly the Cuban Missile Crisis, had been a young boy during Pearl Harbor, and had written a book about the Civil War. What history offers at a time like this, he suggested, is the modest reassurance that we have been here before and gotten through it. Don’t despair, he said; don’t be afraid.
Part of what makes living through the unfolding disaster of the Trump administration so dispiriting, and so frightening, is the almost daily realization that we have not been here before, that no president has ever behaved in this way, deliberately pulling the seams of democracy apart. Even my old boss would not be able to find an American precedent for what we are seeing. But our cover story, by the classicist W. Robert Connor, does find a historical model, one that is admittedly 2,500 years old—the Athenian general and politician Cleon. A history of Athens written by Aristotle or one of his students describes Cleon as a leader “who greatly corrupted the people by impulsive onslaughts; he was the first to shout and slander on the podium.” It also accuses him of speaking “with his cloak rolled up,” whatever that means, one thing we can’t pin on the president. Cleon was a bully and a blowhard, and because Athens hadn’t seen anything like him before, it was necessary to create a word to describe him. That word, perhaps coined by the playwright Aristophanes, but in any case used by him and the historian Thucydides, was demagogue. Cleon was not a tyrant, Professor Connor points out, at least not yet, in part because the skill with which he employed crude speech and anti-intellectualism—in contradistinction to his predecessor, the statesman and orator Pericles— gave him the backing of the people, the dēmos, making it unnecessary to suspend democratic processes.
Here American history offers some reassurance. We have from time to time, beginning with our president’s hero, Andrew Jackson, seen periods of populism, a word with roots showing its kinship to demagogy. But Connor explains the difference in the two words: the populist has a political philosophy that can be tested on the voter, whereas the demagogue offers only incoherence—a chaotic welter of anything that might work at the moment. Democracy and its processes can survive populism and often have. Whether democracy can survive demagogy is a question I hope we will not have to test.
Robert Wilson is the editor of the Scholar and the author of Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation.