How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue

The first thing to remember when you’re dealing with a demagogue, is that your first instinct is always wrong.

When a demagogue says or does something that offends you, you have to restrain yourself, because the obnoxious and offensive stunts of a demagogue are like a big, juicy worm.

And you, my friend, are the fish.

If you see the worm, become righteously indignant, and take the bait, he’ll have you hooked, and you’ll be right where he wants you.

Demagogues, by definition, rise to power and influence by manipulating your gut reactions. And they know how to use that to their advantage.

As Scott Alexander recently pointed out in his fantastic book review of The Art of the Deal, the skillful demagogue not only knows how to make us react with righteous indignation, he relies on our criticism as a form of fuel to promote his message.

The funny thing is that even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business. [When I announced my plans to build Television City to the press], not all of them liked the idea of the world’s tallest building. But the point is that we got a lot of attention, and that alone creates value.

The other thing I do when I talk with reporters is to be straight. I try not to deceive them or to be defensive, because those are precisely the ways most people get themselves into trouble with the press. Instead, when a reporter asks me a tough question, I try to frame a positive answer, even if that means shifting the ground. For example, if someone asks me what negative effects the world’s tallest building might have on the West Side, I turn the tables and talk about how New Yorkers deserve the world’s tallest building, and what a boost it will give the city to have it again. When a reporter asks why I build only for the rich, I note that the rich aren’t the only ones who benefit from my buildings. I explain that I put thousands of people to work who might otherwise be collecting unemployment, and that I add to the city’s tax base every time I build a new project. I also point out that buildings like Trump Tower have helped spark New York’s renaissance.

The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.

It’s not just that demagogues say what they say just to get rise out of us. They do, but that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that they’re counting on the righteous indignation of the outgroup to promote the message to the ingroup. Without the righteous indignation of those who oppose the message, the demagogue gets no attention at all, and thus has no influence.

Our righteous indignation is the gas that makes the demagogue go.

[You may have noticed that I have not referenced The Art of the Deal’s author by name. That’s because I know, and he most certainly knows, that every time we mention his name, we increase his power and influence.]

The demagogue’s political strategy is to do things to get us to talk about him. And like Pavlov’s dogs, we salivate every time he rings the attention-getting bell.

Demagogues take a strategic approach to manipulating us. To defeat a demagogue, his opponents must also adopt a strategic approach to defeating him.

With that in mind, let’s discuss the do’s and don’ts of defeating a demagogue. And since the don’ts are more obvious than the do’s, I think it makes sense to begin there.

How NOT To Defeat a Demagogue:

Public Lectures: Robin Hanson, professor of law and economics at George Mason University, compares those who lecture publicly about politicians to parents nagging a teenage daughter.

Imagine a daughter who felt overly controlled and under considered by clueless parents, and who was attracted to and tempted to get involved with a particular “bad boy.” Imagine that these parents seemed visibly disturbed by this, and went out of their way to lecture her often about why bad boys are a bad idea, though never actually telling her anything she didn’t think she already knew. In such a case, this daughter might well be more tempted to date this bad boy, just to bother her parents.

Lecturing a child doesn’t work. Nor does lecturing one’s political opponents. If the goal is to create a public record of your opinion, then criticizing a demagogue may achieve that goal. But if the genuine goal is to defeat the demagogue, then a public lecture will almost certainly have the opposite effect.

Loud Protests: Protests can be an effective tactic in strategic campaigns against injustice, and have been used at times to great effect. But publicly protesting a demagogue who is not yet in power is a foolish and self-defeating tactic. It only serves to give the demagogue more attention, which is what he needs to increase his influence. Even worse, if handled poorly, it can lead to sympathy for the demagogue, and create converts to a message that wouldn’t likely have cared for it otherwise.

Ad Hominem Attacks: Mike Signer, attorney and former fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, wrote the following in a 2012 article about Sarah Palin, “[P]olitical outrage is not self-fulfilling; ad hominem attacks against opportunists … can often backfire, making them both more popular and even more sympathetic.” And Norm MacDonald made a similar observation in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter:

They say humor is the ray of light that illuminates the evil or whatever, but I was reading that in Germany and Adolf Hitler times, everybody was making fun of Hitler. Every cartoon was against Hitler, there were comedy troupes doing sketches about Hitler being an idiot with a stupid mustache and what a stupid little idiot he was. So anyway, there goes that theory about the power of comedy. It doesn’t work at all.

Demagogues succeed because they trigger emotional connections with their followers. Mockery is an awful method of persuasion and does not sever those emotional connections. Rather, it merely strengthens those bonds and further entrenches the followers to their leader.

How to Defeat a Demagogue:

The Silent Treatment: Demagogues are like mean, stray dogs. They’re relentless and persistent, and the fact that they are alive and well proves that they have well-honed survival instincts.

But if you stop feeding them, they will go away.

Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin are no longer influential. But their influence did not wane because we convinced their followers of the errors of their ways or because our righteous protests swayed the undecided. Our tweets and posts and articles did not cut them down. Their influence waned because we simply stopped talking about them. We grew tired of their shenanigans, and instead of reacting with righteous indignation, we stopped reacting altogether.

We stopped feeding them. And they went away.

Let Your Actions Do the Talking: Every time we click on a link that talks about a demagogue; every time we post a comment or write an article; every time we whisper or shout their names, we’re doing them a favor.

Last month, economist Justin Wolfers wrote an article in the New York Times showing that Google trends is reliable predictor for who is winning an election. Every click begets more revenue that begets more articles, creating more attention and power for the demagogue. Lots of people know this, but few do anything to reverse the cycle.

If you want to defeat a demagogue, you must remain steadfast in your refusal to be a pawn in his game. And that means purging him completely from your information diet.

Form New Alliances: There is a large group in this country that has a firm respect for the rule of law, is willing to go to great lengths to defend religious minorities, and believes that respect for others is fundamental to peaceful co-existence. This group is the Church of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons.

The Mormons have not had a traditionally close alliance with progressives, but these are not normal times. Political alliances are ever-evolving organisms. Whether or not we are likely to see a political realignment in the coming years is up for debate, but divisive politics creates opportunities for those with open minds.

A political alliance among liberals, libertarians, and Mormons is unlikely. But if respect for others, respect for the rule of law, and religious tolerance matter, then perhaps now is a time to explore a new political alliance that may not have seemed possible even a few months ago. These things happen when the right combination of people and circumstances inspire them.

Demagogues often achieve power by dividing voters and using a plurality, rather a majority vote, to achieve their ends. To combat this effect, it is crucial for those who might oppose a demagogue to create broader alliances.

To my knowledge, no one has yet written a definitive treatise on how to defeat a demagogue. But when the opponents of a demagogue seem to be falling for the demagogue’s own script, it is a sign of trouble ahead.

What is certain is that you cannot defeat a demagogue by giving the demagogue more attention. And since what the demagogue knows well is how to get attention, we must be vigilant in not falling into that trap.

Saying or doing something public might feel like the right thing to do, but in reality, to defeat a demagogue, what matters most is not what we do, but rather, what we don’t do.