In the recent Republican debate, Newt Gingrich pandered to his right wing audience by, once again, resorted to demagoguery — most obviously in his hateful comments about Palestinians, referring to them as a group, as “invented,” referring to them, as a group, as “these people.”
Gingrich, a smart man who knows better, said, “These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools. They have textbooks that say, if there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left? We pay for those textbooks through our aid money. It’s fundamentally time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, enough lying about the Middle East.”
Wow. “Demagoguery” is word that frequently pops into mind when Gingrich speaks. It’s a word with a big history, starting in the democracy of ancient Greece. One definition: “A strategy for gaining political power by appealing to the prejudices, emotions, fears, vanities and expectations of the public—typically via impassioned rhetoric and propaganda, and often using nationalist, populist or religious themes.”
Yep. That sounds like Gingrich. Wikipedia helpfully adds a definition by H. L. Mencken that aptly fits: “A demagogue is: one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.”
The trend toward legitimizing and rewarding demagoguery by a major political party is alarming. Trish Roberts-Miller, a professor of history, theory, and pedagogy of public argumentation at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas (see below) has posted a great essay, “Characteristics of Demagoguery.” She warns, “Historically, demagoguery is a precursor to the ending of democracy—that is, when demagogues succeed, their first move is almost always to restrict the power of the people or parliaments in favor of some kind of tyrannical or totalitarian system.“
Germany and the whole world suffered by outlandish propaganda prior to WW2 and the trend toward demagoguery in American politics is headlined in a recent article in the German publication, Spiegel: “The Republicans’ Farcical Candidates: A Club of Liars, Demagogues and Ignoramuses.” The article states: “There are no limits to how far they will stoop. … They lie. They cheat. They exaggerate. They bluster. They say one idiotic, ignorant, outrageous thing after another. …Pompous and blustering, Gingrich gets away with humdingers as well as with selling himself as a Washington outsider — despite having made millions of dollars as a lobbyist in Washington. At least the man’s got chutzpah.”
Gingrich’s boldness is truly breathtaking. Last year, during the debate over building the proposed Muslim Cultural Center in New York City, Gingrich managed to equate Muslims with Nazis, and supporters of such a center with Nazi sympathizers.
Dan Sweeney at that time, in the Huffington Post, “Why the Shock Over Newt Gingrich’s Nazi-Muslim Comparison?”, wrote:
The fact is that the partisan rancor today is pretty damn ugly. What we should remember is that a great deal of the blame for this lies with Newt Gingrich.
After Newt and his boys took over Congress in 1994, they looked toward the 1996 election and maintaining their power. Newt released a memo from his GOPAC political action committee entitled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.”
In that memo, Gingrich advised his fellow Republicans in Congress as to how to draw a difference between Republicans and Democrats. He avoided entirely any actual comparison of Democratic and Republican policy initiatives. Instead, he recommended that Democrats and their ideas be described with a list of words that he helpfully provided. They included “traitors,” “destructive,” “betray,” and so on. Check out the whole memo. The words carefully crafted by Speaker of the House Gingrich are still commonly used by Republicans running for office today.
Well, notoriously spineless as they are, even congressional Democrats didn’t take to being called traitors at every available opportunity. And so the partisanship built and built, and now, we are where we are.
So when Newt Gingrich compares all Muslims, even the moderate ones behind the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, to Nazis, sure it’s an outrageous comparison. But it’s far from surprising. From his very rise to power a decade and a half ago, Gingrich has always taken the low road, and he has done it better than just about anyone else in politics. What I wrote earlier is true: He’s the most vicious demagogue of my lifetime.
Jeff Greenfield writes, in “Which Newt Is The Good Newt?”
The Gingrich as demagogue-bully has been on frequent display this cycle. He won applause and cheers from audiences in and out of debates with the artful turning of very loaded language. If you’re looking to jail people for the financial crisis, start with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and former Sen. Chris Dodd.
Unhappy with the way the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculates the impact of spending and tax ideas? That’s because the CBO “is a reactionary socialist institution” and should be abolished.
You don’t like the liberal opinions of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals? “Congress can say, ‘All right, in the future, the 9th Circuit can meet, but it will have no clerks.’ ‘By the way, we aren’t going to pay the electric bill for two years. And since you seem to be rendering justice in the dark, you don’t seem to need your law library either.’”
This is of a piece with Gingrich’s single most (in)famous bit of rhetorical excess. In his 2010 book, “To Save America,” he labeled today’s Democratic philosophy “secular socialism,” emphasizing “the secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.”
Roberts-Miller in her essay lists 14 descriptors of a demagogue. She says, “Keep in mind that not every demagogue exemplifies every one of these characteristics, and certainly not in every speech. In addition, remember that exhibiting a few of these characteristics does not make a speaker a demagogue.” Her 14 descriptors:
- Ingroup/outgroup Thinking, A Rhetoric of Hate
- Demonizing, Dehumanizing, and/or Scapegoating the Out-Group, Especially on Racial, Ethnic, or Religious Bases
- Simple Solutions
- Entitlement, Double-Standard, Rejection of the Notion of Reciprocally Binding Rules or Principles
- Refusal to redeem claims.
- An Ethos of Sincerity
- Internal Contradictions
- Tendency Toward Conspiracy Theories
- Metaphors of Cleansing, Disease, and War
- Pandering to Popular Prejudice and Stereotype, Often Racist
- Bad Science
Gingrich seems to fit a lot of these. This is a long essay and I’ve excerpted here only a small part:
Characteristics of Demagoguery.
… The easiest way to restrict the ability of people to criticize you is to make it dangerous to do so. This can be done through passing laws—so that people can be thrown in jail, fined, or sued for saying certain things. But it can also be done through so rousing your followers that they will try to harm anyone who disagrees with you. That is what demagoguery does.
People often use “demagoguery” simply to mean effective discourse that they don’t like, or they assume that demagoguery is rhetoric used on behalf of a bad cause. (Thus, sometimes people will defend someone against the charge of demagoguery by saying, “It isn’t demagoguery because he’s right.”) But just about any political viewpoint can be put forward in a demagogic way—it isn’t restricted to one position on the political spectrum.
Demagoguery is polarizing propaganda that motivates members of an ingroup to hate and scapegoat some outgroup(s), largely by promising certainty, stability, and what Erich Fromm famously called “an escape from freedom.” It significantly undermines the quality of public argument for reasons and in ways discussed below. In the most abstract, the reason it is so harmful is that it creates and fosters a situation in which it is actively dangerous to criticize dominant views, cultures, and political groups. It makes discourse a kind of coercion, largely through rousing and appealing to hate. Thus, the very people who make the decisions cannot hear all the information they need. …
A demagogue breaks everything into two camps: the one s/he represents (what people call the in-group), and evil (the out-group). This kind of polarization recurs throughout demagoguery—there are only two options, there are only two policies, there are only two groups. … polarizing is a useful rhetorical strategy for demagogues, especially if they can work their audience into a state of panic.
Ingroup/outgroup Thinking, A Rhetoric of Hate
…Kenneth Burke talks about this as god and devil terms. That is, some terms are just Good (e.g., freedom, patriotism, community, peace, democracy) in that anything associated with them must be Good, so those are god terms. And some terms are just Bad (e.g., terrorist, racism, liberal, fascist, communist) in that anything associated with them must be Bad, so those are devil terms. …
This slipperiness is useful for demagogues for several reasons.
- In the first place, such words evoke strong emotions, and that’s always helpful. It’s also helpful in that, if one can get a “god term” associated with one’s side, People will often feel that there would be something mildly sinful about questioning the argument.
- Third, broad definitions, like broad brushes, can cover a lot quickly—if one tosses out that one’s opponent is a liberal, for instance, then s/he has to take time to defend against that charge (see the fallacies handout on ad personum/ad hominem).
- Fourth, a demagogue doesn’t want to define the term carefully because, if it’s defined broadly (which is the most useful for being able to tar other people), then one’s audience will notice and might object (so, for instance, no American politician wants to define “terrorist,” as it would become difficult to explain why Henry Kissinger and Oliver North are not in jail), but a narrow definition would make it harder to apply to all of one’s opponents.
Demonizing, Dehumanizing, and/or Scapegoating the Out-Group, Especially on Racial, Ethnic, or Religious Bases
Demonizing is done through explicitly saying that the out-group is Satan himself or a tool of his (e.g., Falwell on homosexuals, Osama bin Laden on the US) … If one can persuade one’s audience that the out-group is Satanic, then even listening to that group is exposing one’s self to the wiles of the Evil One. And, anyone who argues for fair treatment of that out-group (or even allowing their point of view to be heard) can themselves be demonized (as when Falwell says that the promotion of tolerance toward homosexuality may be Satan preparing the way for the Antichrist); this is part of the general project of demagoguery of making it actively dangerous to disagree. …
A demagogue never claims that the situation is complicated to explain, nor that the solution is difficult to grasp. Demagoguery depends upon the perception that political problems and solutions are easy to understand …
Motivism is the assertion that people don’t really have reasons for what they do, but they are motivated by something else—a lust for power, for instance. Rarely demagogues assert that everyone has base motives (including themselves); more often they assert that the out-group has base motives, while they are motivated by something admirable …
For instance, Limbaugh takes any bad behavior on the part of a democratic politician as proof of what is wrong with democrats (it signifies the “internal attribution” of badness that all democrats have), while any bad behavior on the part of a republican is explained as a quirk of that specific person …
Imagine that I am a cat fanatic, and I loathe dogs. If a dog bites me, I say, “See, that’s typical of dogs—they’re vicious.” If a cat bites me, I say, “Oh, that poor kitty, it must be having a bad day.” Anything bad the dog does is because of their essential badness, while anything bad a kitty does is explained away as something particular about that cat or that moment.
Entitlement, Double-Standard, Rejection of the Notion of Reciprocally Binding Rules or Principles
This is closely connected to the above, and it is one of the qualities of demogogues I find personally fascinating. The best way to explain it is that they live in a world of double standards—something that is wrong for the out-group is okay for them and the in-group, and something that is okay for them and the in-group is wrong for the out-group.
Thus, for instance, the same people who criticized Clinton’s intervention in Somalia and Chechnya then claimed that criticizing Bush’s intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq was “unpatriotic” and “not supporting the troops.” The same people who said that Thomas’ sexually harassing Anita Hill was a sign of unfitness said that Clinton’s harassing women didn’t matter.
Refusal to redeem claims.
A basic premise of civil discourse is that interlocutors will “redeem” any claims that someone else questions. That is, if two or more people are talking, and anyone challenges the assertion of another, that person will try to justify the assertion with additional evidence or supporting reasons, or retract it. So, if I say, “Hitler said Jews should be exterminated,” and you say, “I don’t remember that he said that,” then I need to show you a place where he did (or retract the claim).
Demagogues, however, refuse to give additional evidence of assertions that are disputed, instead resorting to fallacies (especially red herring and ad personum) or silencing the questioner (as when proslavery forces tried to get abolitionists thrown in jail for publishing criticisms of slavery).
An Ethos of Sincerity
Given that demagogues are willing to lie, and are often caught out in lies which they often don’t even bother to contradict (see the various webpages on Limbaugh’s lies), it’s striking that they always claim for themselves the ethos of a person devoted to a sincere expression of the Truth. …
One might argue that this is simply one instance of fallacious arguments, but it seems to me worth noting specifically. Demagogues often contradict themselves, sometimes on details (e.g., McCarthy and the number of communists), and sometimes on the underlying logic of their arguments.
Tendency Toward Conspiracy Theories
The Hofstadter piece talks about this at length, and not all demagogues are paranoid, but it certainly does come up a lot. I think it arises because there’s a basic logical contradiction—if the solution is obvious, and all good people are in agreement about it, why hasn’t it already happened—how can one explain people who appear to be reasonable and good-willed and who disagree. The answer? They’re in the service of the devil! There is a complicated conspiracy which is thwarting Good.
Metaphors of Cleansing, Disease, and War
Because war is such a powerful motivator, and because it is so widely assumed that “special” measures are justified under conditions of war (e.g., abrogation of human rights, violation of moral precepts), the more that one can get one’s audience to perceive the situation as a war, the more likely they are to do whatever the demagogue says. Thus, demagogues almost always describe the situation as a war, or they call for a war against the outgroup.
Pandering to Popular Prejudice and Stereotype, Often Racist
Demagogues typically appeal to popular images (often visual). This appeal reinforces those images, even when they have nothing to do with reality—whether of certain ethnicities, nationalities, political views, or life situations (discourse about welfare always invoked an image of “the welfare mother”—a stereotype that did not represent the majority of people who got that sort of assistance).
It’s striking how often demagogues rely on really bad science—Hitler on eugenics, Bilbo on patently false anthropology, both on bad understandings of race. …
It’s important to remember that the last thing a demagogue wants is fair and open discussion of issues—the main goal of demagoguery is to keep opposition points of view from getting a fair hearing. (Although they often claim to be in favor of such a discussion, in fact, they do everything they can to prevent it.) Because demagoguery is based in over-simplifying the situation, polarizing the community, and promoting hatred of out-groups, people who advocate careful consideration of the evidence and who can notice and draw attention to the demagogue’s fallacies are actively dangerous for the demagogue’s project.
Last but not least, demagogues promote nationalism. Nationalism is best understood in contrast to patriotism. Whereas patriotism is simply love for one’s country and institutions, nationalism is the sense that one’s nation is the best, often because it is more sacred than other countries. (Because you can’t have two “best” countries, the achievements of other countries and cultures have to be denigrated.) Nationalism is love for one’s country plus contempt for other countries mixed with worshipping the symbols of one’s nation.
Patriotism is often the result of pride in specific achievements, so it is perfectly compatible with vigorous criticism (that is, there is nothing unpatriotic about criticizing one’s country),but nationalism is grounded in total loyalty to some perceived (or projected?) essence of the national identity, and therefore cannot tolerate criticism.