Note: This essay first appeared in Public Seminar, April 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
In early April, Washington Post’s adversarial columnist Dana Milibank dubbed Bernie Sanders “the Donald Trump of the left,” noting perfunctorily at the end of his column that his wife, Anna Greenberg, “works for John Hickenlooper, a Democratic presidential candidate.” One can assume that Milibank is entering the fray over whom to select to run on the Democratic Party ticket.
As the Democratic Party struggles to work through internal differences, including how far left is too far to defeat Donald Trump, a robust debate can be productive and even contribute to coalition building. Yet the chance of a constructive outcome decreases to the degree that caricature substitutes for characterization and, in the present case, populism is mistaken for demagoguery.
Distortion by exaggeration and oversimplification, especially in circumstances where the struggle is intense and the stakes are high, degrades candidates and damages the process of selecting the Party’s standard bearer. Toxic language is alienating. In heavy doses, it is irreparably divisive.
To caricature Sanders as a demagogue akin to Donald Trump is egregious. Milibank’s intervention—a forced comparison of Sanders to Trump based on a loose conception of demagoguery—is calibrated to widen fissures within the Democratic Party. It is a divisive comparison to Trump that some within the Democratic Party already are inclined to make. Greg Hale, a Democratic campaign advisor associated with Clinton in 2016, is among those saying this time around that Sanders’ “tone” is “too Trumplike.”
Milibank’s indulgence in alienating language is an example of what to avoid regardless of which candidate one favors. His vilifying trope not only condemns the candidate by false association but also disparages the voters supporting Sanders by suggesting demagogues on the left as well as the right are pandering to public prejudice.
Calling someone a demagogue brings into play the dark image of a politician garnering support of the common people by playing to their passions rather than making reasonable arguments. It evokes a contrast between elites deliberating and publics emoting. Power-thirsty demagogues make false claims and grand promises to an uninformed populace. They are unscrupulous agitators, rabble-rousers appealing to the lowest common denominator and promising quick fixes to exploit concocted crises while scorning thoughtful deliberation and moderate solutions. They substitute flattery, vitriol, bigotry, and prejudice for reason and rationality. Their favorite techniques include lying, fearmongering, ridicule, and scapegoating. Their rash rhetoric incites mob behavior, undermines political norms, erodes the rule of law, and promotes violent extremism. Demagogues personify authoritarianism.
Demagoguery, in short, is the antithesis of responsible political discourse, as is manifest in the case of Donald Trump. Indeed, it has been said that Trump is the clearest example of an American demagogue since Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and Pat Buchanan—a true enemy of democracy. His demagoguery was evident throughout the 2015 presidential race, as his inflammatory language invited violence, perpetuated falsehoods, and undermined government. Michael Signer, author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies, considered candidate Trump-the-demagogue to be a “singular menace” to the republic, “democracy’s enemy within.”
After his election, demagoguery became the defining trait of Trump’s tumultuous presidency, so much so, argues Bob Bauer in Lawfare, that it makes him impeachable. His “lying presidency” inflicts political injury on democratic society. He deceives in order to advance his own “unbounded” interests, showing contempt for institutional limits, legal restraints, and ethical norms. He gets his way by disdaining opposing points of view and vilifying anyone who disagrees with him or gets in his way. He ignores inconvenient facts and fabricates others. He is the “fully-fledged demagogue” in the White House who stirs in his followers a loyalty to his person while engaging in a politics “hostile to limits on the fulfillment of ambition, self-glorification and the pursuit of power.”
Bauer cautions specifically against conflating demagoguery with populism:
A skilled populist orator, stirring an audience to resent entrenched, wealthy interests, is always in danger of being denounced in these terms. The criticism is facile, failing to distinguish between a powerful advocate for a coherent populist program and a demagogue who mouths populist slogans.
Indeed, Bauer anticipated Milibank’s facile comparison of Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump.
What is Sanders’ “flair for demagoguery,” according to Milibank? He’s a populist. He is not like Trump in a “race-baiting, lender-cheating, fact-avoiding, porn-actress-paying, Putin-loving sense.” But his style is “similar.” He shouts. He doesn’t smile. He is anti-establishment. He criticizes the media. He is convinced of his own correctness. He attacks “boogeymen (like the 1-percent and CEOs . . . instead of immigrants and minorities).” And he “offers impractical promises with vague details, lacking nuance and nostalgic for the past.” Milibank’s conclusion? Sanders’ success shows that Trumpism is bigger than Trump.
At the heart of Milibank’s criticism is Sanders’ populism, specifically his resentment of entrenched, wealthy interests. Milibank points to Sanders’ criticism of the establishment and the media for dismissing Medicare-for-all, of corporations for lying and moving jobs to China and Mexico, of billionaires for buying elections, of Republicans for being hypocritical, and so on. The bottom line for Milibank is that “It’s less hateful, perhaps, to blame billionaires than immigrants or certain ‘globalists’ for America’s problems,” but Sanders’ socialist badge is demagogically equivalent to Trump’s America-First badge: “Sanders’ tempting—if Trumpian—message,” he insists, is that “a nefarious elite is to blame for America’s problems.”
Milibank brandishes the charge of demagoguery to clothe his objection to Sanders’ sustained and coherent critique of the negative impact of neoliberal economics and politics on American workers. It is the work of caricature over characterization, indeed, instead of careful assessment of Sanders’ reasoned arguments. There is no counterpart in Trump’s tweets to Sanders’ skilled oratory.
The point here is not to endorse Sanders or any of the other contenders in the Democratic primaries. These are still early days. The point instead is to caution against falling prey to weak and misguided analogies that delegitimize by false association and thus undermine without thoughtfully, respectfully, and reasonably engaging the issues advanced by the various candidates. Democracy is a politics of contestation. Disagreeing strongly, though, does not necessitate vilifying an opponent. Whoever wins the nomination, we cannot afford to forget, will need the strong support of the Party as a whole if she or he is to prevail in the general election.