Top Demagogues Through History

Some demagogues have risen to power and become dictators, others were relegated a footnote to history. Here are a few.

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Webster’s defines a demagogue as “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.” The word comes from the ancient Greek demos, or people, referring to common or working poor. Over time, it has been applied to political figures who have used fear, paranoia and scapegoating to win support (as Sen. Joe McCarthy, shown here). The term has also been used to describe GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, who called Mexican immigrants "drug traffickers and rapists" and earlier this week proposed closing the United States to all Muslims. “There’s a fine line between populism and demagoguery,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for American Politics. “Both words describe rabble-rousers. Populism can be used for good, to invoke the little guy versus big business or big government. Demagoguery is a kind of extreme populism that preys on peoples worst fears and often hidden emotions.” Some demagogues have risen to power and become dictators, others were relegated a footnote to history. Here are a few.

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This ancient Greek politician of the 5th century BC was a statesman and general of Athens who gained fame by setting up a system of informants throughout the city, and for his hatred of the ruling class. He also ordered the deaths of all citizens, including children, of the Greek city Myrtilene. The order was rescinded but not before more than one thousand men were killed. “Cleon would count as an example -- if you asked (Greek historian) Thucydides,” according to Yale University classics professor Victor Bers. “It could also be applied to the Syracusan general Athenagoras.” Bers noted that Cleon was rooted in the working class, and that the history of ancient Greece was written by rich men who wanted to keep their class in control.

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This Democratic governor and U.S. senator from South Carolina led a paramilitary group during the state’s violent 1876 election. As governor, he helped passed bill to remove the right to vote for black men. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death in 1925, he ridiculed blacks and boasted of helping kill them during that election. His aggressive language gave him the nickname “Pitchfork.”

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This outspoken Louisiana governor was also the inspiration for the main character in Robert Penn Warren’s novel “All the King’s Men,” about the rise of a southern politician and his downfall at the hands of an assassin. Long was a true populist, who started a “Share the Wealth” program to redistribute tax revenues from corporations to the poor in his state. He also built charity hospitals, schools, roads and bridges as well as a substantial political operation throughout the state. Elected U.S. Senator in 1932, he continued to pass legislation through proxies in the Louisiana legislature. Long was assassinated on the steps of the statehouse in 1935, a month after declaring his candidacy for the presidency, which was stoked by his nationwide "Share the Wealth" clubs. His enemies also called him a demagogue.

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This Republican Senator from Wisconsin pursued alleged communists during the “red scare” of the 1950s, hauling academics, actors, scientists and other figures to testify on their ties to the Communist Party. In 1950, McCarthy gained notoriety during his famous speech in Wheeling, W.Va., in which we waved a piece of paper in the air claiming to have a list of more than 200 known members of the Communist Party who were “working and shaping policy” in the State Department. Over the next four years, he brought forth government officials, academics and Hollywood actors and screenwriters to Capitol Hill. More than 2,000 lost their jobs. McCarthy was finally stopped when he attacked the Army, foiled by a lawyer who responded back to McCarthy “Have you no decency sir?” McCarthy died at age 48 in 1957 after losing his power. The term “McCarthyism” lives on in describing a political witch hunt.

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Upon his election as governor of Alabama in 1962, Wallace vowed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The following year, he stood at the doors of the University of Alabama defying federal troops who were sent to enforce a Supreme Court order to allow blacks to attend the school. The lifelong Democrat ran for president in 1968 as a third-party candidate with the American Independent Party, winning 46 electoral votes and 10 million popular votes. He returned as governor of Alabama, but was shot and paralyzed during an attempted assassination attempt during his 1972 presidential campaign. In his later years, Wallace apologized to black leaders and rejected his racist and segregationist views. He died in 1998.

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Even though Hitler was a successful politician who took power in Germany by scapegoating Jews, Communists and many other groups, Alan Levine, political science professor at American University, says that demagogues only exist in a democracy. Their rise occurs before a dictatorship is successful, and so in his opinion dictators like Hitler do not fit the bill as demagogues. “A demagogue exists in a democratic contest and maintains a technical legitimacy through winning votes. A dictator doesn’t need that kind of legitimacy. Dictators are worse than demagogues, who still operate in a democratic system,” Levine said. “To the extent that which our politicians ignore the Constitution, and don’t feel bound by the Constitution, that lays the stages for the coming of a demagogue.”

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