History shows that almost all tyrants have been demagogues who gained the favor of the people by their accusation of the notables.
This quote has unfortunate contemporary relevance, given this election season. An anti-establishment ethos has characterized both the Democrat and Republic presidential races, an ethos represented by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Both of their campaigns appealed to a broad dissatisfaction with the status quo; and this dissatisfaction was often expressed as a disenchantment with the political class. Both candidates issued sweeping condemnations of the current political system, and promised radical change.
This frustration was, however, apparently more powerfully felt on the right than on the left, particularly among white men, which is why Sanders was defeated and Trump was victorious. Trump has continued his primary strategy into the general election, linking Clinton with Obama, and the two of them with vested interests and the media, and blaming the combination for the country’s current lack of “greatness.”
Now that he’s down in the polls, he is doubling down on this strategy with his accusations of a rigged election. The politicians, the donors, and the media—in short, the rich and powerful, or “the notables”—are conspiring to silence the voice of the people by tampering with election results.
Never mind that he doesn’t provide any evidence to substantiate the claim. It doesn’t matter. Such conspiratorial thinking appeals strongly to the human imagination. Once you suggest there’s a conspiracy, the very lack of evidence becomes a sort of evidence. If there’s a secret, of course we wouldn’t know about it, right? It appeals to a paranoid mindset, seeing significant patterns where none exist, suspecting hidden forces at work behind the scenes.
By questioning the legitimacy of the institution of elections, Trump is positioning himself as a sort of prophet. He can see what others don’t. He is also casting himself as an instrument of the people, a threat that “the notables” must defend themselves from. This is a powerful narrative: a room full of bad guys plotting conspiracies, and a man of the people out to stop them. I know from experience how appealing this story can be; after all, I voted for Sanders in the primary, whose talk of the 1% and Wall Street, and whose criticism of the media coverage (I thought it was bad, too), put him in a similar position.
But of course there are huge differences between Sanders and Trump—so obvious that I feel bad even writing their names in the same sentence. One major difference is that Sanders never questioned the legitimacy of the United States government the way Trump is doing. Sanders accepted defeat and is now campaigning for Clinton. Trump is only intensifying the conspiratorial rhetoric.
This strategy of accusing the notables was ancient by the time Aristotle wrote about it, over two thousand years ago. But it appeals so strongly to our psychology that it is still practiced today. An easy way to gain power is to make people angry at the people who currently wield it. Unfortunately, pointing out problems does not make you qualified to come up with solutions. And someone who is willing to prey on people’s fears shows a cynical contempt for the people, not a desirable quality in a ruler. This is why demagogues so often become tyrants.