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The word “demagogue” derives from the Greek for “leader of the mob.” Exactly as this etymology suggests, demagogues appeal to the people and only the people. Rational thoughts are thrown out the metaphorical window, replaced by hubris: a circumvention of a system well-fabricated for the established political actor. Demagogues primarily feed the populace with democratic anarchism, using simple yet provocative statements to manipulate the thoughts of the people. Therefore, demagogues come to prominence through backlash against the status quo.

To understand the demagogue and how he comes into shape, let’s look at the modern demagogue. The one in question: Donald Trump, the 45th president of the USA. His campaign slogan was simple, yet it resonated with the people. “Make America Great Again” was the representation of the people’s frustration with the status quo. The people were inspired by his claims to represent their voice. Trumo is now the wealthiest president ever, but he won over the average worker. The lesson from Trump’s victory is that the people will bet on the candidate that can smash through the status quo, no matter how entitled or disruptive he is. Despite Trump’s ridiculous and controversial statements, he exposed the establishment for its worst qualities and broadcast those qualities to the people. Reason loses to the hysteria of the vulgus (the crowd) in response to the system “failing” the people.

The term “demagogue” also describes Trump’s ancient counterpart, Cleon of Athens, who was an archetypal aristocrat. He took a bold stance against Pericles, whose support of progressive ideals was a weakness Cleon could exploit. Eventually, Cleon brought himself to power using sycophantic rhetoric. He crowned himself as the champion of the people by breaking his ties to aristocratic allies and embracing populism. Once elected, Cleon did what he promised, leaving the balance of power uncertain. He blamed others for his mishaps while refusing to accept any act of political reprisal for his offenses. He met his death at Amphipolis, which finally brought peace for the Athenians. In the end, it was in both Trump’s and Cleon’s best interests to behave erratically and propose extreme policies; although the people may think that by supporting demagogues, they are effecting change, they fail to see that they are falling victim to demagogic manipulation.

Demagogues mock the skillful political navigation traditional politicians practice, and they impede progress made in the real interest of the people. Despite the disorder they often cause, however, politicians like Trump and Cleon can be real facilitators of change. Their rise is a sign that the establishment must adapt itself to better meet the people’s needs. Whether in the past or in the present, demagogues lead recklessly, but that recklessness and questionable rhetoric provides catharsis for a return to the status quo. Through this backlash, the system of democracy, past and present, continues in motion according to the people’s voice.

demagogues, past and present

by ting wei li, boston latin school JCL editor

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