With the vast improvement in the transmission of pictures and words quickly to more and more people, the always present threat of demagoguery increases. We have seen a number of such (whose names will not be mentioned), but all learned their  techniques, directly or indirectly, from Adolph Hitler. And in order to understand the man’s success no one has studied Hitler more closely than Hannah Arendt, a Jew who was forced to leave Germany in her childhood and later became a teacher and writer of international fame. She wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, a large book that established her reputation firmly as one who had a penetrating insight into some of the most important events of the past which she was convinced should enable us to better understand the present and anticipate probable future events. In a lengthy footnote in that book she reflects on the success of the depressingly ordinary Adolph Hitler “who during his lifetime exercised a fascination to which allegedly no one was immune.” Indeed, anyone who has seen films of Hitler before a crowd, even if he is not fluent in German, finds himself swept up in the emotional theater and inclined to agree with whatever the little man is saying. What is it that makes this possible? As Arendt notes:

“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society, with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, the tendency is strengthened, so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong. Hitler, who knew the modern chaos of opinions from first-hand experience, discovered that the helpless seesawing between various opinions and the ‘conviction . . .that everything is balderdash’ could best be avoided by adhering to one of many current opinions with ‘unbending consistency.’ The hair-raising arbitrariness of such fanaticism holds great fascination for society because for the duration of the social gathering it is freed from the chaos of opinions that it constantly generates.”

There are a number of features of this comment that invite our attention. Clearly, Arendt has studied her subject closely and asked key questions about how it is that such a person as Adolph Hitler could hold vast numbers of people spellbound and convince them that black is white. To begin with, as she says, he grabs one of the many opinions floating out there and presents it with absolute conviction as the only possible truth, bringing order out of chaos. Repetition, conviction, and consistency, with the assurance that people will believe what you say if they hear it said often and without doubt or hesitation. This is key. Please note that it doesn’t matter in the least whether the opinion is true or false. What matters his whether or not the speaker says it with conviction. Hitler never doubted himself; he never second-guessed. He simply asserted what he wanted people to believe, knowing they would believe what he said if he said it often enough and without any hint of uncertainty.

But as Arendt points out, it matters also that this opinion must be asserted in a group where there is confusion about what matters and what is true. They seek release from the bewildering array of opinions on every side: they want something firm to grab onto in a world filled with conflicting opinions. In Hitler’s day when the mass media were just aborning, the situation was less chaotic than it is in our day when we are overwhelmed with numberless opinions on every subject. We are bombarded on every side by claims and those who presume to be experts about things we may know little about. We all have opinions, but we also are easily persuaded by one who seems to be certain of the truth, even if that truth runs counter to what we ourselves believe. And even if it is blatantly false. The appeal is always emotional, not intellectual., This is not philosophy; it is rhetoric. The demagogue knows how to “work on” the emotions of his or her listener. And as Arendt points out, when the audience evidences ” a characteristic lack of discerning judgment,” as it does in our day especially, the job is made so much easier.

So we should not be amazed that folks like Rush Limbaugh and, in his day, Paul Harvey are immensely popular: they make complex issues simple by  stating “with unbending consistency” and without wavering an opinion (any opinion) that floats in the air and assert it with smug confidence. Their listeners seem to be sitting at the feet of wisdom itself. How could we not have seen that before? It seems so clear now. The demagogue doesn’t know any more than we do. He simply appears to do so and he does so with swagger and with firmness that seem to make disagreement impossible. So we buy what he is selling, whatever that might happen to be. And we feel a sense of relief in doing so, because by agreeing with the demagogue we are ourselves now also wise. Where we had doubts before, we now have certainty — even if we are “demonstrably wrong.”


12 thoughts on “Demagoguery

  1. As a Russian, whose great grandfathers died on the fields of WWII, I was always interested in that emotional impact on people that Adolph Hitler had.

    • It was astonishing! He is reputed to be one of the most powerful speakers ever to have lived! Of course, he was also insane. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Hugh, this at least the second time you have spoken about Hitler’s approach to wooing large numbers of people. Some of the parallels are scary and one could only imagine our many more he could reach today with his BS. The other thing we need to be mindful of is people make rather quick judgments about their advisors and the truth cannot separate them from their subservience.

    I would stop short of equating Paul Harvey who offered learned opinion with Rush Limbaugh serves as provocateur. Harvey is the person who coined the phrase “voodoo economics” in describing trickle down economics of Reagan, to the extent George HW Bush used it in his campaign against Reagan. Good post , BTG

    • I equate them only in that they both give the impression of sitting high on a mountain with a special grasp of the truth. They were (are) both demagogues in that they pronounce and sway millions with their self-assurance — regardless of the content of their message.

  3. It’s not that this piece seems trenchant in ways that do little (or worse) to illuminate Demagoguery, ancient or modern (there is something familiar in a refrain here that looks like the pinning of a fault upon a young donor than it does the kind of strictly reasoned purpose of insight), once famed in the heights of cooler minds but here lacking a demonstrable analysis of this perplexing Term, nowhere exhausted but smacked about like a shuttlecock in some badminton game. Aside from generational sparring, though, and quite without any “name dropping” to issue my Real point, what’s interesting about those who would denounce Demagoguery from the pulpit of Public Discourse, is that they leave themselves a vulnerable victimhood as the most likely product for themselves among the viscous (when it comes to Social Organization: Political/Legal/Religious Institutions, and the like value-systems and practices).

    Thus, when fighting a very large fire (say, Forest or Institutional-size), its often best to have the stronger of the two in order to first exhaust what remains of the tinder to which the Other may apply. It’s really just a simple strategy, so as not to give range or field to the Enemy is to go there First and make the whole of the terrain uninhabitable and moot as a realm of Contest. An effective Demagogue can do this, and steal away Subjugation from the jaws of Authoritarianism promoted by opposing rhetoricians. Fight fire with Fire, some say. But mostly what I hear here seems the echo of a complaint upon our donor fools who somehow fall more prey today among the young than did their accomplished grandparents two generations ago.

    Don’t the moving forces of every age basically come down to what faction promotes the ‘better’, more urgent or equally convincing, Story (essential Art), and who gets it Published in full spectrum detail First? The Argument (which is what all Good Story (or Mythology) means to convey), could not, would not or should not, turn-out be be Demagoguery in terms deployed (historical icons?) here. I mean, that would be “insane” to suggest that Art must stand-aside from the Fray as arrow-making specialist whose Shaft is so long it never leaves the Bow.

    In that Point MOST interesting about the term issued here, practically nothing is said as to its Real virtues, such that they appear to come from ways of Perspective and Orientation that one (who shall go unnamed) did not imagine, let alone defend. But don’t mind that. One of those scorched-earth disciples of the School in Hard Knocks, a little unbalanced from all the Blows (punch drunk sometimes, and then some), and who would rather Defend the defensible than Aggress the problematic, any day, seeks to come ashore on the wind.

    If any One can do That (defend the defensible) with a Song or Story that demonstrates this Just Determination in urgent and/or epic confrontation with opposing Principles and Powers that sway the age, and that includes what I think here is being painted as the “methods of Demagoguery”, then it only follows (in a fair fight) that we should wait to deride some terms for when all is said and done…first said, first done perhaps, if at least merely to see if there’s anyone left standing on the Field who disagrees, by whatever means, form or persuasion. At least this seems to be the Tactic of the Opposing Argument these days, that characterizing Competition vs Cooperation. Conquer-at-any-cost appears to be the theme and marching drum of the Aggressor, not-to-hard to discern.

    Such Song or Story could be like wearied and weathered sailors who take to a Port illegally, driven by prevailing winds, dangerous shores, and a high probability of wreckage, resulting in possible arrest and fine and forfeiture of vessel as an “unprivileged combatant,” i.e., one blown by contrary winds, riding in on a fully equipped Corsair. Oops. The difference being, in Argument that the risk is to the Port as one about to be annexed, and not the Argonauts taken to the post.

    Thanks for the exercise. Good fun, when not taken to the boards by Sirius.

    • I was not suggesting that demagoguery is a generational phenomenon, but that it is simply more likely to be present when the means of disseminating falsehoods as unquestioned truth are readily available — and the audience, because it is perhaps less well educated, is more likely to succumb to the siren song on the demagogue. Arendt’s claim that Hitler’s and Stalin’s audience was “lacking in discerning judgment” suggests that this has always been a problem. I simply wonder aloud whether it might be a greater problem today given the sad condition of our educational system.

  4. Fortunately, from what I’ve been reading today, Rush Limbaugh seems on his way out — a couple more radio stations have dropped him because he’s begun to tick off too many advertisers. Another admitted right-wing liar for dollars, Anne Coulter, has become persona non grata on TV talk shows because she’s gone too far with her personal attacks. However, no doubt, others will rise to take their place. It’s the nature of the beast(s): the public craves them, the media supplies them. Ugh.

    In the 1930s, America had its own frightening episode with demagoguery, though fortunately not with the horrid consequences of Hitler: Father Coughlin, a Nazi sympathizer and fierce anti-Semitic, played on many of the same fears and ignorance as Hitler did, and, at his peak, drew 40 million radio listeners a week! 40 million would equal the population of some European nations. Fortunately, as well, Coughlin was not in a position of political power, although some of his followers or those inspired by him attempted various overthrows government. One failed attempt, in 1940, finally factored into the downfall of Coughlin himself.

    Like Hitler, Coughlin could whip mass groups — on radio, and in stadium speeches — into a frenzy with words of hate, words that made his followers feel good about themselves by belittling others, words that exploited the economic conditions of the day. It’s something to be wary of, always, and especially so today where the media isn’t just radio and newspapers.

    PS, I love Hannah Arendt’s term “the modern chaos of opinions”. It couldn’t be more fitting for the world of today.

      • More so, Beware those who insist The Truth is either their native or adopted tongue. Both, inevitably, fail the test of Job and collapse upon the weight of their very human and limited (shadow) existence.

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