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Democratic Activist Says Donald Trump Fits Demagogue Mold


When Donald Trump said Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S., he sparked a backlash from across the political spectrum. Trump was labeled many things, including a demagogue. And that is fitting, according to Michael Signer, who teaches politics at the University of Virginia. Signer's a longtime Democratic activist and author of a book on demagogues and democracy. He says there are four traits demagogues typically share.

MICHAEL SIGNER: One is that they fashion themselves as a man of the masses, second is that they trigger waves of great emotion. The third is that they use those waves of emotion for political benefit. The fourth is the most concerning, which is they threaten or break established rules of governance.

GREENE: Now before you go on, I just listened to those four criteria, and it doesn't necessarily paint the picture of a bad person.

SIGNER: That's a great point. If you go to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of demagogue when you're going back through the centuries actually has a positive connotation. We wouldn't tend to think of it that way today, but they can have a beneficial effect if the system that they're attacking is truly corrupt and if they're marshaling the common people against it.


SIGNER: However, in the great majority of the cases, especially when they're attacking a constitutional democracy, which is what Trump is, I liken them to an autoimmune disorder, where the body's defenses sort of turn against itself.

GREENE: And let me just make sure I understand the metaphor here. I mean, demagogues are part of the defenses in a democracy to make sure that people retain power but that they can actually turn against a democracy and cause major problems.

SIGNER: Yeah, so in the founding of this country, the Founding Fathers were extremely worried about demagogues. Because basically, what they do is they create a substate that is accountable to them alone. And that state by breaking these rules, by breaking rules of governance, that state can grow and grow and grow, and ultimately it can topple a democracy. That's what happened in Weimar, Germany, where Adolf Hitler came up from the democracy and then attacked the democracy.

GREENE: Could you argue or could some of Trump's supporters argue that they, you know, see him as a positive kind of demagogue? I'm imagining voters who are sick of the American political system, who don't feel like their voices have been heard, who feel like it is corrupt, and to them, Trump is kind of a hero.

SIGNER: Yeah, I think that that's his argument. And then now if you look at the variables we have today, you have terrorism. You have economic fear. You have this idea of American decline. You have collapse of statesmanship as an ideal. We don't talk very much about our leaders becoming statesmen, which is one of the great ways to diffuse or attack demagogues is when you have leaders that we respect rising up against them. That's what happened with Joseph McCarthy. And we have a worship of celebrity, and we have kind of a festival of the appetites is what you would call these emotions that somebody like Trump plays to. And he's really a perfect storm of all of those things, and I think that his supporters - I agree - the people that he's playing to would think that the system that he's attacking is corrupt, weak, all those other things. But the problem is that he's now turning on the basic precepts of American constitutional democracy, freedom of religion, an open society, you know, the state having monopoly on violence. He's getting close to encouraging violence.

GREENE: You know, it's interesting. You hear different people talk about different Donald Trump, his supporters saying many of the things you're talking about, that at a time when they're so angry at the system that he's just the kind of candidate that they want. You hear some of Trump's critics saying, you know, the time is going to come at some point when he will lose support because he will just cross a line. I mean, have you seen a line crossed yet that you see is the moment when he's going to begin losing some support?

SIGNER: There is a majority who's going to be worried, panicked, appalled by what he's doing, and I think that may be the fact that he just fell to second in Iowa is that starting to happen. I just can't believe that even among the Republican base there's too many people whose parents, you know, fought in World War II or who know what the Statue of Liberty says or who understand how important it is that we remain an open country or have some connection of some Muslim-American somewhere. And so I think the fact that he just fell to second in Iowa might actually explain why he is acting out so much. He's so desperate.

GREENE: If you look at some people today who say, I am just sick of the political system, it seems so corrupt, can you blame some American voters for looking for a demagogue-like candidate?

SIGNER: Yes, I can. There is a burden of responsibility that comes with being a citizen of a constitutional democracy. And if you decide to go with your gut as opposed to caring about those values, then you are hurting this country. Demagogues have been talked about for millennia as flatters, so they flatter the people. They play to our need for gratitude. And we're supposed to better than that. So one of the reasons that demagogues are hemmed in is because people say, I hear you, that feels good, but I'm not going to fall in love with you. This is too indulgent. And politicians, usually, are too ashamed to do what demagogues do. And then, Trump, who's a creature, comes from the entertainment world, comes from a culture of narcissism, he doesn't care about any of those rules. So I don't think it's OK to say, well, you know, I know about the principle of separation of church and state, and I know about not having violence in our politics, but I'm going to go with Trump anyway because I'm so angry at the system. That's not OK. It's definitively not OK in the United States of America, and it needs to be condemned.

GREENE: Michael Signer, thanks so much for talking to us. We appreciate it.

SIGNER: You're welcome.

GREENE: That was Michael Signer. He's a lecturer in politics at the University of Virginia, and he's coming out with a new book soon, "Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins Of The Least Likely Founding Father." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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