The American Demagogue

As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a demagogue in today’s terms means “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.” Sound familiar?

Source: Creative Commons

Source: Creative Commons

Sixty three months in federal prison. That’s what 53 year old Robert Scott Palmer faces after storming the United States capital and assaulting law enforcement on Jan. 6, 2021. The attack on January 6th of 2021 shocked the nation. Why would a group of Americans attack the capital of the country they claimed to love so much? It comes down to one thing. Their “president” told them too. It was the culmin­a­tion of efforts by former Pres­id­ent Trump and his allies to over­turn the results of the Novem­ber elec­tion, fueled by repeated lies about widespread voter fraud. The main fuel for this fire was, and continues to be, the idolization of former President Trump by his followers. 

Internet culture, for better or for worse, has become a very prominent part in today’s politics. This is both a blessing and a curse for American democracy. But after observing the aftermath of the last presidential term, the curse has been taking its toll. Take Donald Trump for example; he is viewed as a monarch among his followers, his mere presence and role legitimizes information and knowledge. The press that challenges him is wrong, everybody that disagrees with him is wrong, the president holds the ultimate Truth. Because of the advancement in technology and the internet, social media has become an effective political instrument that both dehumanizes politics and releases people from the efforts of contextualizing politics themselves. People worship platforms such as Trump’s Twitter account. Yet if a politician’s flaws are not recognized, they become all-powerful and able to do no wrong, which is extremely dangerous. 

The biggest example of this was shown in the attack on the capital by Trump supporters on January 6th. Most of those citizens, on their own, would never have committed such an atrocity. But because of the credibility and influence that they have given Donald Trump, they believed it was the right thing to do. French philosopher Voltaire once said, “certainly anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.” This is exactly what former President Trump is doing.

People should not idolize politicians, but recognize their influence and hold them accountable. At campaign rallies, Trump supporters have been known to hold signs connecting him with words like “savior,” and “God,” seeming to fervently worship him. Examples of this glorification have been shown through history at the first stirrings of fascist leadership. In fact, Trump’s cult-like following is reminiscent of other fascist leaders, such as Jair Bolsonaro, the current President of Brazil. Similar to Trump, he has painted himself as a savior by using the religious fervor of his country and calling his campaign “a mission of God.” 

Americans’ knowledge of basic civics is frighteningly scant. A 2015 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that only 31 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, and 32 percent cannot identify a single one. Though the 2021 results of the survey yield more positive results, 52% of participants could name all three branches of government, the percentage is still alarmingly low. Though President Trump is out of office, there is no way to stop a new American demagogue from rising to power, no way except educating our society about democracy, along with democratic skills. This has two distinct elements: providing citizens the analytical and critical thinking skills necessary to be well informed and make sound decisions in elections; and instilling in students an appreciation for the benefits of liberal democracy as a system of governance, thereby guarding against demagogues who would undermine democratic principles.

Idolizing political candidates results in the endorsement of all their behavior; both the positive and negative. Voting requires an understanding of a candidate’s policies, and as such, votes should be purely policy based.  People need to stop voting on the basis of admiration and idolization — it’s the only way to save America’s democracy.