The Dark Arts: Principles of Demagoguery

A major problem today is that our body politic has not been able to mount a strong immune response when it is exposed to a high-level demagogue.  Such an event is relatively novel to our society, so adequate defenses haven’t been built up previously.  A strong and amoral demagogue can infect the population with surprising ease, with very damaging consequences.  The tactics and strategies employed by a demagogue are very effective.  Following is a list of principles of demagoguery that can be observed to be in use at present:


  • Focus on ideas that can be expressed as simple, vivid slogans
    • Without distracting details or nuance
    • Easily remembered
    • With emotionally potent language and images
  • Provide a consistent narrative that will stick in peoples’ minds.
  • Use simple words with lots of superlatives.
  • Speak and write using strong emotional affect, particularly outrage and anger.
  • Hammer points home using constant repetition.
  • Try out themes and see which ones get the strongest visceral reactions. Emphasize those. Eliminate those that don’t.
  • Tap into audience prejudices and fears such as racism, nativism, ethnic and religious antipathies, homophobia, misogyny, etc.
  • Whip up peoples’ passions.
  • Brand opponents with demeaning nicknames. Regularly insult them. Say they are criminals and traitors.
  • Get people to see themselves as being victimized and humiliated. Tell them that their difficulties are not their own fault, but are caused by enemies. Identify people to blame.
  • Stoke feelings of grievance and resentment, particularly over declining group status and privilege.
  • Target outgroups for hatred.
  • Attack government in general. Portray it as a primary cause of people’s problems.
  • Incite people to act out in revenge.
  • Encourage the belief in dark conspiracies.
  • Frame matters as conflicts, with winners and losers. Heap scorn on those you regard as losers.
  • Cast everything in black and white terms. Portray it as existential good versus evil.
  • Put forward authoritarian, punitive, “law and order” approaches.
  • Incorporate metaphors and images of violence in your rhetoric.

Personal presentation:

  • Practice “command presence”. Be intimidating. Be dominating. Present yourself as a virile alpha male.
  • Act boldly.
  • Use forceful arm and hand gestures when speaking. Employ facial expressions of anger. Shout for emphasis. Use obscene language.
  • Display the trappings of being a winner. Live the way other people wish they could live.
  • Be unpredictable.
  • Ignore rules and laws that you apply to others.
  • Don’t be overly concerned about the truth. Say whatever will give you the greatest advantage.
  • Threaten violence to get your way.
  • Be transgressive, including sexually.
  • Demand loyalty. Do not allow people to expect it from you in return.
  • Seize and keep the initiative. Always be on the attack, never on the defensive.
  • Respond forcefully to any perceived slight or criticism. Hit back much harder.
  • Never apologize, never show uncertainty, never admit a mistake.
  • Present the image of a strongman who can accomplish things that no one else can by operating outside ordinary norms and constraints.
  • Encourage followers to see you as a hero, maybe even sent by God.

General tactics:

  • Capitalize on your celebrity status from the various media, particularly television.
  • Focus on dramatic public spectacle, such as rock star-like mass rallies.
  • Dominate the news cycle through sensational acts and statements.
  • Capture and hold media attention. Be sure the spotlight stays on you so that others’ messages don’t get heard.
  • Replace anyone on your team who draws attention to themselves instead of you.
  • Make everyone else operate in reaction to you. Keep all focus on yourself.
  • Frame the issues, control the terms of any interaction.
  • Appeal to tribal identity. Make people feel it’s Us vs. Them. Have followers identify directly with you.
  • Encourage people to form a cult of personality around you.
  • Leverage partisanship to your greatest advantage. Be deliberately divisive.
  • Insist that followers reject the legitimacy of any election you or your chosen candidates don’t win.
  • Reduce people’s trust in the very principles of democratic elections.
  • Say the media are the enemy of the people. Assert that anything unfavorable to you is fake news.
  • Assert that laws and rules don’t apply to you.
  • Ignore legal subpoenas. Demand subordinates do likewise.
  • Encourage followers to think violence is likely to be necessary to put things right. Legitimize intimidation and threats. Urge people to martyr themselves for your cause.

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