On demagogues, nationalism, populism, religion, and other weaknesses of the human condition

In a world of post-truth politics, alt-right, and death-by-selfie (seriously?!), some people may feel worried and increasingly alienated by a culture or country they no longer recognise as their own. Although less than two generations have passed since the likes of Hitler and Mussolini, it appears as though what happened in the 20th century, the bloodiest in human history, is all but some distant parallel universe where people existed in black-and-white. What many did not believe even remotely possible some 10-15 years ago, seems to be unfolding in front of our very eyes: a reversal of cultural and socio-political achievements (workers’ rights, tolerance toward people of other religions, races, or sexual orientations, etc.), a renunciation of reason and progressive politics. Instead, religion is on the rise again and we can witness the return of the age of the demagogue, with U.S. president-elect Donald Trump as their new poster boy.

A (non-exhaustive) list of present-day demagogues.

“The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.”
– H.L. Mencken

In some cases, this can be paired with religious fervour to give the impression as though one’s political agenda serves some higher purpose. This is not a new concept and has been employed countless times since the invention of religions. Turkey or Poland are present-day examples.

“Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte

Even in countries like Germany or France, that would normally be considered modern and progressive, the demagogues on the far right often invoke Christianity and Christian ideas of morality, as founding blocs of their ideologies, and rest assured they would not do so if it didn’t resonate with their electorate. In this context, it is also interesting to note that for many years, studies among the U.S. electorate have shown that it would be more likely for an autocratic racist to become U.S. president than for an atheist. Well, looks like the pollsters got something right at last.

“If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.”
– Dr. House

But to stay on topic, according to Wikipedia, the methods of demagogues are:

  1. Scapegoating
  2. Fearmongering
  3. Lying
  4. Emotional oratory and personal charisma
  5. Accusing opponents of weakness and disloyalty
  6. Promising the impossible
  7. Violence and physical intimidation
  8. Personal insults and ridicule
  9. Vulgarity and outrageous behavior
  10. Folksy posturing
  11. Gross oversimplification
  12. Attacking the news media

Seem familiar? That’s because it is. You could add in brackets after each item: as employed by Donald Trump in his 2016 electoral campaign. In the days before the 2016 U.S. election, German weekly news mag Der Spiegel featured a cover that showed both incumbents covered in mud, calling it one of the dirtiest campaigns of all time.

Cover of Der Spiegel no.46
Cover of Der Spiegel no.46, Nov. 2016.

The Germans (curiously enough) have a rather apt term for people like this: Geistige Brandstifter which translates to something like intellectual arsonists. The term is really quite accurate because demagogues often exploit ignorance and existing prejudices as kindling to instigate (typically) negative emotions towards certain groups or factions of society (immigrants, the rich, gays, Muslims, infidels, etc.) and once the fire is lit, it is only too easy to loose control. Essentially, it always boils down to the same “them versus us” narrative.

While I do not consider myself a particularly good scholar of human history, I am unaware of any time in history where the creation of (often artificial) divisions in society has led to anything positive.

“The secret of the demagoge is to pretend to be as stupid as his audience so they can believe they are as smart as him.”
– Karl Kraus

Using the example of nationality

The concept of a nation state may have been very useful at some point, as it actually served as a means to unify a large number of peoples that were geographically, culturally, and even linguistically very diverse. For instance, even by the time of the French Revolution (1789) only half the French people spoke French, and only 12-13% spoke it well1. This may sound odd to modern ears, as nationalism is mainly used for the contrary purpose nowadays, to divide and set us apart from them, but we often forget that initially it was a very artificial construct. It provided an umbrella, a political instrument aimed at eventually forging a sense of common identity among people that originally did not appear to have very much in common and were organised in much smaller tribal structures or mini-kingdoms.

Map of Europe around 1300CE
Map of Europe around 1300CE

Unifying them under the nation umbrella meant less conflict and war and more prosperity. In the age of globalisation, nations have been demoted to mere tribes again, and new superstructures like the European Union have been created as a new means to once more unify geographically, culturally, and linguistically diverse peoples. Many people mistake the founding of the EU (or the European Economic Community as it was originally called) as purely economically motivated, a mere trade union. However, one of the principal reasons was in fact the prevention of armed conflict through unification. The idea was that by integrating the former enemies from World War 2 more closely, mechanisms such as strong nationalism and isolationist politics that eventually built up to World War 2, could be avoided or at least made much more difficult in the future. It was François Mitterrand (French president from 1981-1995 and one of the main drivers of European integration) who said:

“Nationalism means war!”
– François Mitterrand

You may dislike many things about how the EU functions these days but the idea of the founding fathers, its main purpose as a pacifier of a violent and war-prone continent, should never be forgotten because the alternatives are far more terrible than having to deal with some bureaucrats in Brussels. Unfortunately, present-day demagogues are doing their best to create new divisions (see the entire Brexit campaign), seemingly oblivious to where this led us in the past. We would all do well to remember that because once Pandora’s box has been opened, to quote Goethe:

The spirits that I summoned up, I now can’t rid myself of.
– J.W. Goethe

  1. Hobsbawm, E J. Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. 2nd ed. Canto. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. ISBN 0521439612.

Author: admin

I am a scientist by training and currently call Spain my home.

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