Beware the Trumpeter

Published 12:59 am Monday, February 29, 2016

This essay is about our current politics– but first, a little history lesson: We all know that ancient Greece was the birthplace of democracy. But democracy there wasn’t a given — struggles and disputes surrounded its establishment. The most dangerous of these was the political phenomenon known as the demagogos — from which we get the word “demagogue.” Some famous Athenians started out as demagogues — Cleon and Alcibiades were famous examples. Greece eventually got tired of them, though, and deposed them. One way they did this was by ridiculing them — the Greek playwright, Aristophanes, made merciless fun of them, depicting them as frogs or in feminine clothing or as ignorant barbarians.

While the Greeks were proud of and fiercely defended their democratic principles, at times, especially when the Athenian public imagined their sovereignty was in danger, a popular leader would come along who appealed to their pride and vanity. He was attractive, he was high-born, he spoke with great force and fervor, he promised extraordinary results if he were given power, he exaggerated threats to Athens and played on the public’s fears — he was “without any political background, personal dignity, and scruples,” as one Greek historian put it. He said whatever he needed to say to get public support and to achieve high office, and he said it in a very loud voice. He said it so loud, so convincingly, that it didn’t seem to matter so much that what he said had no substance. It’s amazing to us now that the Greek people, a people so steeped in the principles of democracy and self-governance, so renowned for their great art and literature, so wise in their choice of leaders, should fall for this verbal charlatanism.

After all, the absolute first goal of a demagogue is self-interest — that is, getting all the wealth and power he can. He feigns a love of the people, but later demands absolute power, and in return he promises absolute security and wealth for everybody. His promises are expressed so vociferously that even skeptics are sometimes fooled. However, once he gets in office, his true colors are revealed — he is a dictator of the people, much like Mussolini was in Italy. He claims he wields his absolute authority to make the people’s lives better and to protect them from outsiders. Of course, in order to do that, he has to oppress dissent, silence objections, quash opponents. At times that oppression and quashing takes the form of rudeness and insults, but later takes violent forms — troops of various sorts must be sent out to destroy those who would question his intentions. After all, the only way to bring about the massive changes he has promised is to take a bulldozer to the old institutions, to reduce them to rubble, so that he may build his great new World on top of them. Yes, many will be abused and jailed; some will have to die. But after all, in the mind of the demagogue and his followers (who are always as obsessively devoted to him as he is to himself), those opponents are now the dangerous ones. They are trying to stop him from achieving his promises, from holding his absolute power. They deserve, so he believes, whatever they get.

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We should all be very wary of the demagogue — of loud-talking, over-confident politicians who make grossly inflated promises, who claim to be able to solve all our problems in a single day, who assert (by appealing to our vanity) that they can make us and our nation “great” again. If we are great, that means — correct? — that he will then be the greatest of us all.


Don Simonton

Natchez resident