Demagoguery and Trump

A lesser known article by Murray Rothbard, written under his pseudonym Aubrey Herbert, was titled In Defense of Demagogues. In recently reading it, I was struck by a handful of connections to the modern Trumpian movement, to the extent that such a movement still really exists.

For many years now, demagogues have been in great disfavor. They are not sober; they are not respectable; they are not “gentlemen.” And yet there is a great and growing need for their services.

The demagogue is one who aims for political positions by appealing to the emotion of the populace, ignoring intelligent and rational argumentation. Of course, being proponents of rational arguments and rejecting the modern world of irrationalism, there is course much justification in being against demagogues. But what Rothbard aims to defend here is not demagogues as such, but demagogues specifically in our American context of Culture Led by the Experts. There is an academic and intellectual establishment that pontificates the Truth on all matters relating to economics, child-rearing, scientific inquiry, and so on. For decades we have been told by the Experts that Global Security must be decided by the Well-Trained, that economics is a subject relegated to those with PhD’s and special mathematical-statistical models. We have been told that parents don’t know how to educate their children and that they therefore need to be handed over to the Union-coralled teaching class. What America needs is a good dose of demagoguery, full of irreverence toward the American civil religion. Not because it teaches men what to believe, but because it flusters the Experts who aren’t used to being completely and flatly ignored in their nonsensical propaganda.

That’s why Trump won. He’s no sage of political theory or Jeffersonian statecraft– but a wildly displeased and distressed middle class flocked to his mockery of Officialdom.

What, exactly, have been the charges leveled against the demagogues? They are roughly three in number. In the first place, they are disruptive forces in the body politic. They stir things up. Secondly, they supposedly fail to play the game in appealing to the base emotions rather than to cool reason. From this stems the third charge: that they appeal to the unwashed masses with emotional, extreme, and therefore unsound views. Add to this the vice of ungentlemanly enthusiasm, and we have about catalogued the sins of the species demagogue.

The charge of emotionalism is surely an irrelevant one. The problem of an ideology is not whether it is put forth in an emotional, a matter- of-fact, or a dull manner. The question is whether or not the ideology is correct. Almost always, the demagogue is a man who finds that his ideas are held by only a small minority of people, a minority that is apt to be particularly small among the sober and respectable. Convinced of the truth and the importance of his ideas, he sees that the heavy weight of public opinion, and particularly of the respectable molders of this opinion, is either hostile or indifferent to this truth. Is it any wonder that such a situation will make a man emotional?

All demagogues are ideological nonconformists and therefore bound to be emotional about the general and respectable rejection of what they consider to be vital truth. But not all ideological nonconformists become demagogues. The difference is that the demagogue possesses that quality of mass attraction that permits him to use emotion to stir up the masses. In going to the masses, he is going over the heads of the respectable intellectuals who ordinarily guide mass opinion. It is this electric, shortcut appeal, direct to the masses, that gives the demagogue his vital significance and that makes him such a menace to the dominant orthodoxy.

It is the fashionable belief that an idea is wrong in proportion to its “extremism,” and right in proportion as it is a chaotic muddle of contradictory doctrines. To the professional middle-of-the-roader, a species that is always found in abundance, the demagogue invariably comes as a nasty shock. For it is one of the most admirable qualities of the demagogue that he forces men to think, some for the first time in their lives. Out of the muddle of current ideas, fashionable and unfashionable, he extracts some and pushes them to their logical conclusions, i.e., “to extremes.” He thereby forces people either to reject their loosely held views as unsound, or to find them sound and to pursue them to their logical consequences.

Now socialism is the fashionable and respectable ideology. The old passionate arguments of the soapbox have become the tired clichés of the cocktail party and the classroom. Any demagogy, any disruption of the apple cart would almost certainly come from the individualist opposition. Furthermore, the State is now in command, and whenever this condition prevails, the State is anxious to prevent disruption and ideological turmoil. Demagogues would bring in their wake “disunity,” and people might be stirred to think for themselves instead of falling into a universal goosestep behind their anointed leaders. Furthermore, individualist demagogues would be more dangerous than ever, because they could now be equipped with rational arguments to refute the socialist clichés. The respectable statist Left, then, fears and hates the demagogue, and more than ever before he is the object of attack.

It is true that, in the long run, we will never be free until the intellectuals—the natural molders of public opinions—have been converted to the side of freedom. In the short run, however, the only route to liberty is by an appeal to the masses over the heads of the State and its intellectual bodyguard. And this appeal can be made most effectively by the demagogue—the rough, unpolished man of the people, who can present the truth in simple, effective, yes emotional, language. The intellectuals see this clearly, and this is why they constantly attack every indication of libertarian demagoguery as part of a “rising tide of anti-intellectualism.” Of course, it is not anti-intellectualism; it is the saving of mankind from those intellectuals who have betrayed the intellect itself.


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