THE most worrying feature of both the American presidential election campaign and the EU referendum is the increasingly dominant voice of demagoguery.
The dictionary definition of a demagogue is a person, especially a political leader, who wins support by exciting people’s emotions rather than by having good ideas. Similarly, demagoguery is defined as an appeal to people that plays on their emotions and prejudices rather than on their rational side; a manipulative approach — often associated with dictators and sleazy politicians — that appeals to the worst in human nature.
Therein lies the problem – all politicians try to appeal to our emotions, but the nature of demagogues is to aim straight for the jugular, to exaggerate our fears and amplify our self-interest.
Irrespective of where you stand on the direction of American politics or whether you want Britain to stay in or leave the European Union, most thinking people must be alarmed by the ever-louder voices of populists who never let the truth spoil a good sound-bite.
Here (omitting some of the grossest, most racist and sexist things he has said, because we don’t want to give him even the credibility of repeating them), are some examples of Donald Trump:
– An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud.
– You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass.
– I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall
– The beauty of me is that I’m very rich.
– The point is, you can never be too greedy.
– It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming!
Nigel Farage warns that staying in the EU would lead to the privatisation of the NHS – but he has also said the NHS should be funded “through the marketplace of an insurance company.” He doesn’t let a little thing like inconsistency get in the way of his arguments.
On BBC Question Time last week, Mr Farage claimed that one new house had to be built every minute, night and day, to cope with current levels of migration. Of course there is a housing crisis, but it is about so much more than migration.
Boris Johnson, who was a popular mayor of our ethnically diverse capital, warned during a television debate with the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon: “On the streets of our city, on the streets of London, because of European judges, there are terrorists and murderers and very serious criminals that we cannot deport.”
Mr Johnson attracted fierce criticism when he invoked the name of Hitler to attack the idea of a federal Europe. He said: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.” He’s a historian – he didn’t say this by accident. He surely knew exactly what he was doing, reaching out to a deep-seated mistrust of Germany that is usually confined to a minority of England football fans.
It is easy to poke fun at Trump with his plastic dyed apricot hair, Farage with his Mr Toad face and blokish pub oratory, or Johnson with his bobbing blonde mop-top. But there is such a serious aspect to these men and their strident slogans that laughing at them is not an adequate response.
They, like Europe’s other increasingly voluble populist politicians – including some on the Far Right (Marine le Pen of Front National, who could be France’s next president, Pegida’s Lutz Bachmann or Norbert Hofer of Austria’s Freedom Party) – operate at the margins of truth, often stepping beyond, using such persuasive verbal dexterity that they can carry the crowds with them.
They are all well acquainted with the truism that if you repeat a lie/inflated claim/utterly irresponsible statement often enough it will be believed. And in due course it becomes a new truth.
Of course, the right doesn’t have a monopoly on demagogues – Castro, Chavez, Mao and Lenin were all hugely charismatic politicians who swept all before them. There are many who think Bernie Sanders is more about self-important rhetoric than a real concern for the best way forward for America, and the firebrand oratory of the National Union of Mineworkers’ leader Arthur Scargill led the miners down a blocked tunnel.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of all this is that at present almost none of the people (on any side) who claim to speak for the people, who promise to make Britain or America “great again” actually have any idea of the lives of ordinary people. Their vast wealth and entitled backgrounds blind them to any understanding of the reality of life for most people, of all colours, nationalities or religion.
The fear is that the justifiable cynicism so many now feel about politicians on all sides will leave the field open for the manipulators with their mega-egos. And the voices of reason and deeper thought will be lost among the fortissimo sound-bites of the megaphone monomaniacs.