Angry Old Men: A Brief History of Demagogues

Over the years we've seen many charismatic agitators rise through the ranks with a straightforward populist agenda and an axe to grind.
October 10, 2016, 9:30pm

Photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore

While the second presidential debate of 2016 raged on Sunday night, the good folks at Merriam-Webster were busy keeping track of the most searched terms on their website from viewers. For a brief spell, two of those words were "demagogic" and "demagogue," suggesting people didn't really understand it when Hillary Clinton was going on about the "demagogic rhetoric" that's been at the heart of this horrific election. (Other most searched words included "bigly" and "lepo." As in "a lepo," as in Gary Johnson isn't alone in his ignorance over the crisis in Syria.) Her opponent Donald Trump, of course, is a textbook demagogue, a political leader who (to quote Merriam-Webster) "tries to get support by making false claims and promises and using arguments based on emotion rather than reason." He's far from the first.

Your debate lookups — Kory Stamper (@KoryStamper)October 10, 2016

The word, Greek in origin, is, as the Atlantic wrote late last year, used as a "sweeping dismissal," one that's "slightly gentler than 'fascist' and slightly more dignified than 'buffoon.'" Demagogues, they write, "undermine the stability of a 'by the people' form of government particularly by turning 'the people' against each other. They represent a danger not just to electoral outcomes or political parties, but to democracy itself."

Over the years and across the globe, we've seen many examples of charismatic agitators rise through the ranks with a straightforward populist agenda and an ax to grind. That isn't even always a bad thing! Malcolm X, for instance, falls onto the right side of the demagogic history. But most of the time firebrand speeches are hiding something more sinister. Whenever Donald Trump spews toxic rhetoric about building a giant wall or China, he's following in the footsteps of a long line of shitlord opportunists capitalizing on the ignorant masses to massage their own brands.

We wanted to avoid obvious examples here, so you won't find an entry on Adolph Hitler or Joseph McCarthy. Instead we wanted to provide a few less-notorious examples of soapbox orators who've altered history in both big and small ways. Here now, a brief history of Trump-like demagogues.


Where: Ancient Athens; When: 430s BCE Cleon probably goes down as the first demagogue recorded in human history. We mostly know him through the writings of the Athenian historian Thucydides and the great playwright Aristophanes (neither liked him very much). Cleon was something of a political outsider who rose to power by appealing to common citizens after the death of Pericles. He's most famous for putting forth some truly bloodthirsty ideas. When the city of Mytilene failed in its revolt against Athenian authority, Cleon recommended that the military slaughter every last man in the city and sell the women and children into slavery. That's obviously horrible, but the resolution actually passed! Though it was rescinded the next day.

Publius Claudius Pulcher

Where: Ancient Rome; When: 62–52 BCE Being a peasant in ancient Rome sucked. Not only were you living in the Bronze Age, when a bad winter could completely wipe out your entire family's lineage, you were also sold a total lie by your government. Technically Rome was a republic, and technically the lower classes could cast votes, but the system was rigged so that a few noblemen always held most of the political influence during an election. That, understandably, created a disgruntled working class. This started to change when an aristocrat named Publius Claudius Pulcher was elected tribune in 58 BCE. Like Trump, Pulcher was something of a weird, audacious rulebreaker that the public couldn't help but adore. His most iconic moment was probably the time he dressed up as a woman and infiltrated a worship ceremony to seduce Julius Caeser's wife, but he also passed a lot of policies that respected the demands of Rome's disenfranchised backbone. He introduced legislation that made it illegal to execute Roman citizens without a trial and enacted a ministry-sponsored handout of free grain—which was unheard of at the time. The people loved him, and like all controversial figures in ancient history, Pulcher was eventually assassinated by a rival politician.

Karl Lueger

Where: Austria; When: 1897–1910 Karl Lueger was born into a working-class family and served as the mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910. Around that time, he founded something called the Christian Social Party—which combined German nationalism and religious conservatism—and engaged in a lot fiery, anti-semitic speech. His Christian Social Party was so popular that it earned two-thirds of the seats on the Viennese municipal council, and Emperor Franz Joseph I was fearful enough of Lueger's social-revolutionary stances that he refused to ordain him as mayor for two years. It wasn't necessarily all bad. Lueger was a fierce advocate for universal male suffrage and brought electricity, streetcars, and other modern amenities to the city. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, most historians consider his nationalism and anti-semitism as political posturing instead of deep-seated beliefs.

Benjamin Tillman

Where: South Carolina; When: 1890–1918 Benjamin Tillman was a farmer in South Carolina who made his way into politics advocating for poor whites against the ruling Southern aristocracy (good!) and also their issues with the recently freed black population (bad!). He was perhaps most famous for consistently stating that black men rape white women, once saying in a speech to Congress that "we of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him." Tillman was elected into the US Senate in 1894 and served until his death in 1918. In 1896, Benjamin Tillman participated in one of the most disastrous presidential bids in American history. The democrats were increasingly furious with the incumbent Grover Cleveland's administration, with Tillman representing the party's unbridled id. In fact, he was so prominent among a certain breed of radical regressives that he was offered the opening speech at the Democratic National Convention. What followed was a truly terrible address, full of the sort of profanity and bullying, which made him a favorite son in South Carolina but completely estranged him to the nation as a whole. The fact that he succeeded where Trump failed may say something about the differences between eras, or maybe Tillman was simply less slick than Trump.

Denis Kearney

Where: California; When: 1880–1910 Denis Kearney was an Irish immigrant to San Francisco who started the Workingmen's Party of California. Kearney appealed to a number of unemployed laborers in the San Francisco area by targeting his ire toward the growing Chinese population. "They have stolen the public lands. They have grasped all to themselves, and by their unprincipled greed brought a crisis of unparalleled distress on millions of people," he said in one of his many ridiculously charged speeches. A white man targeting a notable minority group is a story as old as time, but one of the spookier parallels between Kearney and Trump is their violent mistrust of the press. "For reporters of the press, I have great respect," he said in 1878. "The reporters of the newspapers are working men, like ourselves—working for bread and butter. But for the villainous, serpent-like, slimy imps of hell that run the newspapers, I have the utmost contempt." Trump can't even muster Kearney's backhanded empathy for reporters. What a time to be alive.

Eugene Talmadge

Where: Georgia; When: 1933–1943 Eugene Talmadge had an fairly standard climb to his stint as Georgia's governor. He received a law degree from the University of Georgia, set up a practice in Telfair County, lost a couple elections for the State Assembly, and eventually was named agricultural commissioner of the state, where he started to appeal to uneducated farmers. In 1932, he ran for governor, carrying every rural county in the state, and making some egalitarian promises like lowering the cost of automobile licenses to $3. But here's the thing. Eugene Talmadge was an absolute fraud. He was a college-educated lawyer, but when he talked to farmers, he adopted a fake backwoods patois and excoriated all those "nigger-lovin' furriners." He built a barn in the executive mansion's grounds and claimed he couldn't fall asleep unless he heard cows mooing. One of his most famous quote was, "The poor dirt farmer ain't got but three friends on this Earth: God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, and Gene Talmadge." This is all bullshit, of course. It's clear that Talmadge barely respected the intelligence and perspectives of his core constituents, and yet he served three terms. You really shouldn't underestimate the gullibility of your average voter. A lawyer appealing to family farmers, a hotel mogul appealing to coal miners. It's really not that different. Follow Luke Winkie on Twitter.