In a 2017 interview, former President Donald Trump bragged about the high ratings he earned for his appearances on Sunday morning shows: “It’s the highest for ‘Deface the Nation’ [‘Face the Nation’] since the World Trade Center. Since the World Trade Center came down.” The personalistic, made-for-TV aspects of Trump’s approach reached a new level of spectacle when his efforts to use disinformation to delegitimatize the electoral process culminated in the violent attack on the Capitol on January 6. Although the legitimately elected Biden Administration has since taken office, major features of Trump’s presidency are not aberrations but distinctive of our political era. Trump’s politics have been described with a vocabulary list that could be hashed out in numerous college seminars — such as “nationalist,” “white supremacist,” “fascist,” a “cult of personality,” “charismatic,” and “demagogic.”
This last term, demagogic, was recently used by Senator Chuck Schumer during the congressional session after January 6’s violent assault. While we are used to seeing “demagogue” as an epithet used by people across the political spectrum to highlight the divisive rhetoric of their opponents, it is also an established analytical concept. Concerns about charismatic, demagogic, and personalistic forms of politics can be found throughout the history of political thought, from Aristotle to Thomas Hobbes and Max Weber. Yet, there are unique features of modern democracies, such as the influence of mass media, including social media, that render our politics so susceptible to demagogy.
Demagogy in Political Thought
Early twentieth-century German sociologist Max Weber treats “demagogy” as a value-neutral technique wherein a political leader directly appeals to the populace to gain their support. According to Weber’s framework, demagogy is not limited to any one ideology, nor is it necessarily violent or destabilizing; indeed, he suggests it is an unavoidable feature of mass politics. According to Weber’s definition, demagogic speech is not merely emotional but can also be fact-based with calm appeals to reason, which is how he described nineteenth-century British Prime Minister William Gladstone’s “demagogy.” Supporters often trust and follow demagogues because of their beliefs about demagogues’ exceptional personal qualities. Demagogy can be used to enact major structural changes to imperfect political institutions, but this change need not be contrary to liberal democratic principles. Who was another one of Weber’s favorite charismatic demagogues? Abraham Lincoln.
Supporters often trust and follow demagogues because of their beliefs about demagogues’ exceptional personal qualities.
For Weber, demagogy becomes most dangerous when the vanity of a demagogue renders them more concerned with their own power, or the appearance of it, than a political cause. What were his solutions? Well-organized political parties and a parliamentary system in which all power seekers must participate and work their way through should ensure that popular leaders obey “the established legal forms of political life, and that they are not selected on a purely emotional basis, simply because of ‘demagogic qualities’ in the bad sense of the word.” He emphasizes the responsibility of the party boss in judging whether the candidate who has mass appeal can actually be trusted.
While political party officials exerted great influence over American processes of electoral representation throughout the twentieth century, Trump managed to capture the Republican Party without any political experience and contrary to the desires of many established members, sparking much debate about a definitive text on the electoral primary process, The Party Decides. Since the 1970s, democratizing reforms to the primary processes seemed to weaken the ability of party officials to select the nominees. But between 1980 and 2004, pre-Iowa endorsements were better predictors of the winners of most of the competitive presidential primaries than polls, fundraising numbers, or media coverage. As long as party leaders coalesce around a preferred candidate, they can exercise great influence over the nomination process. Though many figures criticized Trump, party leaders did not coordinate to endorse an alternative candidate. Thus, Trump’s ability to connect with voters in a crowded primary played an important role in his nomination. With no disrespect to Weber, who often characterizes charisma as an almost mystical, divine force, Trump’s “charismatic influence” is partly due to his celebrity and media-savvy impulses — products of his experiences as a socialite and reality-television star. Indeed, one of the authors of The Party Decides cited the increasing importance of celebrity in politics as a potential explanation for why the 2016 election departed from their theory.
Demagogy in Modern Politics
Consequently, it seems the party control that Weber argues would help prevent demagogues from destabilizing fundamental institutions is unreliable in the United States today. Mass media, especially 24-hour news channels and the rise of forums and “independent” news sources on the Internet, has complicated party control, resulting in what contemporary theorists like Bernard Manin and Nadia Urbinati call “audience democracy.” In audience democracy, media experts, rather than party insiders, are central to electoral competition, and politicians dominate the public stage by forging personal connections with the public audience who reacts to their visions for American politics.
What is distinctive about modern democracies is not the existence of demagogues but the communication channels from which they benefit.
Social media renders the concepts of demagogy and audience democracy even more salient. What is distinctive about modern democracies is not the existence of demagogues but the communication channels from which they benefit. Television made a big difference in how individuals could connect to voters without necessarily needing the stamp of approval from a particular political party, but social media makes it even easier for political figures to present themselves directly to the public, such as Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s and Mikie Sherrill’s recent uses of Instagram Live and Facebook Live, respectively, to address their experiences of the Capitol attack.
However, because social media platforms want to maximize user engagement, their algorithms can increase political polarization and divisiveness, creating an environment in which some demagogues can thrive, as The Wall Street Journal reports. Companies collect data on users so that they can target them with the content with which they are most likely to engage. This means that demagogues’ appeals are disseminated to the most receptive spectators at a dizzying pace. In fact, social media platforms’ targeting methods bring like-minded people together while they also divide society: the same WSJ report cites a 2016 Facebook internal report that found that 64 percent of users who joined an extremist group did so because Facebook recommended it to them. Trump’s avid use of Twitter during the 2016 election and until earlier this month has allowed him to directly communicate what he wanted on his own terms without needing to conform to traditional democratic norms, like press briefings. Still, traditional mass media also played an important role in Trump’s dissemination of electoral disinformation.
Because of his reliance on demagogy and the media, Trump’s supporters are not solely drawn to him through shared partisan identity, but also through their faith in his personal character. His retweets have been interpreted as signals of support by adherents to belief systems that ended up playing a role in the storming of the Capitol, such as white nationalist groups and believers of an online conspiracy theory, QAnon (started by an anonymous poster on the platform 4chan), which has since been embraced by some Republican politicians and evangelicals. By depicting Trump as a renegade hero fighting an evil political establishment, the QAnon conspiracy theory has elevated his manufactured, reality-television charisma to nearly messianic levels in the hearts of his most ardent supporters, including some attackers of the Capitol. That the demagogic connection forged between Trump and his supporters is not reducible to party loyalty can be seen in their search for former Vice President Pence on social media sites and out loud in the Capitol as soon as Trump tweeted criticism of him in the midst of the violence. Trump supporters expressed feelings of betrayal once Trump condemned the violence the next day. Since then, QAnon adherents have adopted new theories, such as the belief that President Biden has always been part of the movement or that Trump’s inauguration is still to come. The Capitol attackers’ own use of social media to livestream and post about the riot illustrates a keen awareness of the political importance of shaping the media coverage of an event. But it also shows how the desire to be seen by others can motivate and shape political action for anyone, not just a ratings-obsessed former president.
While concepts like demagogy, celebrity, and audience democracy bring to mind the theatrical nature of contemporary politics, we must not mistake the theatrical for the superficial. Just as we should consider how Trump’s long-desired Fourth of July military parade precipitated his support for heavily militarized police responses to peaceful protesters this past summer, the Capitol attackers’ taste for the spectacular is consistent with an underlying appetite for violence.
While concepts like demagogy, celebrity, and audience democracy bring to mind the theatrical nature of contemporary politics, we must not mistake the theatrical for the superficial.
Even if Trump remains banned from major social media platforms, he has already established a fervent base of supporters skeptical of liberal democratic norms and institutions. Maybe he will even start his own media company, as he reportedly considered when he expected to lose in 2016. Regardless of Trump’s future, he does not hold a monopoly on demagogic techniques; politicians like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene are already replicating his strategies and seeking to harness the political energy of QAnon adherents.
The demagogue remains a perennial political figure. If we want to strengthen and improve the fundamental institutions of liberal democracy, we must reconsider the structural conditions that render our politics so susceptible to demagogy. This may mean considering democratic reforms to party competition, as Lee Drutman argues. However, we also have to look outside of the party system to make sense of today’s politics. Policy decisions made by the government and private entities, like technology companies, that may appear only technical and economic have deeply political consequences. If we do not address these structural conditions, we should not be surprised when we see reboots of recent years, even if they end up recast with new actors.
- Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zeller, The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
- Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
- Nadia Urbinati, Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
- Nadia Urbinati, Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).
Kristen R. Collins is a senior fellow for the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
 Max Weber, “The Profession and Vocation of Politics,” in Political Writings, eds. Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 309–369: 343.
 Weber, “The Profession and Vocation of Politics,” 351.
 Weber, “The Profession and Vocation of Politics,” 354.
 Max Weber, “Parliament and Government in Germany under a New Political Order,” in Political Writings, eds. Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 130–271: 230.