There’s no clearer sign about the character of this year’s presidential contest than the renewed interest in asking Google,  “What is a demagogue?” Senator Joseph McCarthy (led the Communist witch hunt) and Governor George C. Wallace (defended segregation) have landed in the news again as everyone grapples with whether or not we’re on the verge of electing a demagogue to the highest office.

We all know demagogues are bad and could probably name a couple. What we really want to know is if we have the self-governing skills to recognize a demagogue without the benefit of reading about it in a textbook.

In a brilliant demonstration of how to use our own history to understand the present, Phillip Gourevitch at The New Yorker wrote in March, “Abraham Lincoln Warned Us about Donald Trump.” He points to Lincoln’s concern for a “mobocratic spirit” threatening the country in 1838 when lynch mobs took up the cause of justice on their own terms. In Lincoln’s “Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum” in Springfield, Illinois, he warned that the “approach of danger” in the United States would “spring up amongst us.” He shared his concern that there was “something of ill-omen” in the events of the day and prescribed a “political religion” to counter it.

Here’s a small excerpt about the contest between the mobocratic spirit and good men. We gave it our “amplified” treatment to lend some visual interest:

Amplified: Lincoln's Address before the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois 1838

Amplified: Lincoln’s Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois 1838


A mobocratic spirit aims to disrupt or suspend government in the name of freedom while threatening that freedom at the very same time. A demagogue uses this strategy to pursue personal gain and to diminish their detractors.

Back to the recent New Yorker piece, Gourevitch tells us Trump has this covered:

Donald Trump personifies the mobocratic spirit; he fuels it and is fueled by it, though it is doubtful that he can control it. All the elements are there: the incessant, escalating lust for violence; the instinct for mobilizing a mob to take the law into its own hands; the claim that whole groups are the enemy; the belief that those who are not with the mob forfeit all protection from the mob and invite attack..

And that’s only half the list.

Last December, The New York Times collected the words of Donald Trump’s public remarks as a way to consider the weight of these accusations  of demagoguery. Analyzing 95,000 words, authors Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman uncovered a “potent language” used to “connect with, and often stoke, the fears and grievances of Americans.” They argue that his words create a “threatening dynamic” with only one resolution: “trust-me-and-trust-me-only.”

This observation points us to a demagogue’s operating logic: fear. The NYT analysis shows that fear is the substance of Trump’s appeals:

The most striking hallmark was Mr. Trump’s constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use, based on a quantitative comparison of his remarks and the news conferences of recent presidents, Democratic and Republican. He has a particular habit of saying “you” and “we” as he inveighs against a dangerous “them” or unnamed other — usually outsiders like illegal immigrants (“they’re pouring in”), Syrian migrants (“young, strong men”) and Mexicans, but also leaders of both political parties.

Healy and Haberman acknowledge that office-seekers often appeal to passions and patriotism, but point to Trump’s ability to “forge bonds with a sizable segment of Americans over anxieties about a changing nation, economic insecurities, ferocious enemies and emboldened minorities.” When assessing a candidate’s potential for demagoguery, we have to consider the possibility that this “us vs. them” thinking could be the logic that governs us.

On this question, Michael Gerson with The Washington Post recommends recalling the work of the American founders. Writing before the Ohio and Florida primaries this Spring, Gerson takes on the question, “Who is to blame for Donald Trump?” He writes, “In a dangerous world, fear is natural. Cynically exploiting fear is an art. And Trump is a Rembrandt of demagoguery.”

Trump is to blame for Donald Trump. There is also an important reminder about the genuine difficulty of democratic government:

With the theory of a presidential nominee as a wrecking ball, we have reached the culmination of the founders’ fears: Democracy is producing a genuine threat to the American form of self-government. Trump imagines leadership as pure act, freed from reflection and restraint. He has expressed disdain for religious and ethnic minorities. He has proposed restrictions on press freedom and threatened political enemies with retribution. He offers himself as the embodiment of the national will, driven by an intuitive vision of greatness. None of this is hidden.

Demagoguery and democracy make for an easy partnership. The U.S. election of 2016 is only the latest test of our capacity for self-government. This time, it’s up to us so we have to be sure we understand the question.

Writing for The Atlantic, Megan Garber suggests that calling Trump a demagogue works to “dismiss him as a candidate and amplify him as a political threat.” We need to understand this threat and that it extends beyond our usual partisan politics.

The threat is instability. It’s a threat that has occupied political thinkers since the beginning of political community. It’s the same threat that motivated Madison’s draft of the U.S. Constitution and everything he wrote about it from there.

Hamilton Quote2Barber offers us this leverage on the problem, “Demagogues undermine the stability of a ‘by the people’ form of government particularly by turning ‘the people’ against each other.” She then turns to no lesser authorities than Aristotle and Federalist No. 1 (Alexander Hamilton) to remind us that Trump is “a human distillation of the maxim that democracy ‘is a device that ensures we shall be governed by no better than we deserve.'”

We need to ask a bigger question than Google can sort out for us. It isn’t whether or not Trump is a demagogue or who is to blame for him. We have to ask about our role as “the strongest bulwark” of self-government and how can we convince our fellow citizens to resist the siren call of “us vs. them.”

We have to turn our own gaze from a demagogue’s demands for attention. We have to insist that we deserve better.