Demagogue on purpose
Is Donald Trump a petulant narcissist who woke up one morning and thought it was a wonderful idea to run for president and said, “Hey, let’s just be the Donald and we will surely win”, or
Is Trump a narcissist smart enough to study the fine detail of demagoguery and acquire the skills to make it work as a strategy for a tilt at the presidency?
The answer is important because it helps to understand what happens next.
The Wikipedia definition of a demagogue is “a leader in a democracy who gains popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the common people, whipping up the passions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned deliberation.”
The main tactics to gain popularity are: scapegoating, fear mongering, lying, emotional oratory and personal charisma, accusing opponents of weakness and disloyalty, promising the impossible, violence and physical intimidation, personal insults and ridicule, vulgarity and outrageous behavior, folksy posturing, gross oversimplification, and attacking the news media.
Given this list, clearly Trump is a demagogue. He has ticked all these boxes over the last 18 months almost as though he had gone to the Wiki page, read through the tactics, and decided to try them all one by one.
The key question is did he adopt this strategy and the list of tactics on purpose or is it just a consequence of who he is?
This answer is important. If he chose demagoguery on purpose to get elected, then it was a smart move. It worked and he can shift strategy to achieve success in office. Few would accept that the tactics list above could sustain the everyday decisions, diplomacy and decorum (dare I say decency) required to administer the affairs of the US.
If demagoguery is in his blood, then he got lucky. The times and the demographics of Middle America were ready for him. Unleashing the Donald on just about any other presidential race in history and he would not have passed go. However, the tactics of a demagogue work best when the delivery is believable, and here, innate helps.
But if you are a natural rabble-rouser who easily appeals to lowest common denominators and then feed off the popularity gained, it will be hard to curb those instincts. Shifts in strategy are difficult, even when they are necessary. Demagogues do not tend to persist for this reason.
So is Trump a demagogue by design or instinct and how will we know?
If the tactics in the list above keep coming, then it is probably instinct given the tactics are grim and hard to fake. So if Trump continues to present as angry, petulant, folksy, and emotional even when the going toughens and harder lines are taken, then he may not have anything else. The biggest give away will be continuing to promise the impossible.
Exploiting prejudice and fear worked to gain office but historically it is not for the long game. If we see a shift towards contrition, conciliation and complexity, then maybe he learnt the strategy and can adopt new ones. A thoughtful Trump in office will be a key sign.
What will we see?
Both. Trump is smarter than he looks and behaves. No doubt he could adopt a strategy that makes the most of his time in office. But he also warms to the tactics of a demagogue too readily for it not to come naturally.
So there will be more thought, some contrition and blunders a plenty.
There will also be this. The Donald that leaves the White House will be wealthier than the one that entered it. And maybe this was the strategy all along.