What is behind the rise of Donald Trump and similar demagogues?

by richardhutton


Back in 1995, the late American journalist Molly Ivins wrote a piece about the popularity of the shock-jock, Rush Limbaugh; who is probably a precedent for Donald Trump, in many ways. After outlining the problem with Limbaugh’s patented brand of vulgar, semi-facetious populism, Ivins says:

“The reason I take Rush Limbaugh seriously is not because he’s offensive or right-wing, but because he is one of the few people addressing a large group of disaffected people in this country”.

Ivins goes on to describe the cult-like following Limbaugh inspired among his followers; noting that “a large segment of Limbaugh’s audience consists of white males, 18 to 34 years old, without college education”, who listen to Limbaugh with devotion, because he gives them someone to blame for their problems in life.

This was written over twenty years ago, but – with the exception of their age-banding – these factors seem to be no less true of Donald Trump today; and it’s happened often enough here in Britain, with politicians and pundits who have risen to prominence, through taking much the same rhetorical line as the likes of Limbaugh and Trump. Audiences of resentful, disenchanted people listen rapt, because they are among the few people who talk to them; and provide anyone who is struggling to get by with someone to blame for what’s wrong in their lives.

You can’t find work? That’s the fault of immigrants. They take your jobs. You are in work, but you can’t make ends meet? Well, there are people on welfare living lives of luxury – they’re taking money from your hard-working, tax-paying pockets. You’re the victim of an unfair society.


The people in question are, truly enough; but then the message develops another tangent: don’t listen to anyone who says we need the government to change its priorities, and create a fairer society – they’re just Islington/Manhattan liberals; and some of them even have beards. We need to cut public spending on schools, social security, and hospitals. People who object should follow your example, and be more self-reliant. We can’t cut spending on the military though – we have to protect ourselves from the Muslims and Communists. Some of them have beards, as well!

There are large numbers of disaffected people in Britain and America; and for that matter, France. These are, by all accounts, prosperous countries; with effective electoral systems. So why is demagoguery proving so potent? The most plausible reason is that it’s due to the causes of this dissatisfaction running deep, and wide; and not being remedied, no matter which administration – of any hue – happens to be in government. Many people struggle to find jobs; or to afford any comforts in life, even when they are comparatively fortunate and in work.

One of the phrases most indicative of our era is the term ‘working poor’. Within Britain, most people who live in poverty are in work. A similar situation applies in America. There is evidently something deeply wrong with our societies when wealth is apparently abundant; yet no matter what some people do, they never escape immiserating circumstances. Being white doesn’t render anyone immune to disadvantage when they’re born poor.

The consequent resentments aren’t going to go away until they’re remedied properly; and since the financial crash of 2008, they’ve grown worse. In some cases, the very difficulties people contend with have been cited by mainstream politicians – right and left – as a justification for making them more severe. A case in point being the stagnation of wages – a core factor behind in-work poverty – being exploited by Britain’s government to justify reducing in-work benefits; reducing peoples’ incomes further still.

At the moment, it tends to be demagogues on the Right of the political spectrum who are addressing the people in question – albeit to exploit them – by telling them what they want to hear, and directing their anger at the wrong targets; and more significantly, if less dangerously, away from the right ones.

Some very vulgar and dangerous sentiments have become increasingly respectable within mainstream discourse in recent years. The media has played a fateful role in this. Anxieties over immigration, which major newspapers have long stoked, are overwhelmingly baseless – the areas with the highest volume of opposition to migration are the same localities with the lowest levels of it. It does not cause job shortages or low wages – but it’s not difficult to work out why people believe otherwise.


The problem immigration does bring to light, however, is a chronic lack of investment in social infrastructure – namely schools, public services, and hospitals. The volatile attitudes surrounding the issue of migration, being voiced by demagogic politicians do need to be confronted – but it requires mainstream politicians to be honest about the actual causes of poverty, inequality, job shortages, or any other social problems; and to fix them, properly.

It is also worth asking questions. Why are people increasingly embracing authoritarianism? Why do people feel under constant threat? Why are they growing more receptive to racism and xenophobia? Why are people working harder, yet finding it more difficult to make ends meet? Why are so many people, in the midst of wealthy countries, only one missed payment away from losing their homes? Why is no-one of consequence offering people in these straits any genuine solutions? Why do so many people believe that they have no future in our societies? Why are people angry, and disenchanted? And why does nobody care?

Until politicians answer these kind of questions truthfully, then the false, convincing – but empathetic – answers provided by the likes of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, or Marine Le Pen will remain the only ones being heard. These three are not just wrong – but absurdly so: offering perverse solutions to problems which apparently have no other remedy. Unfortunately, we live in times dominated by absurdity and perversity; wherein those in government propose to address social problems by intensifying their original causes, and blaming victims of their policies for the circumstances they have been left in.

The actual factors behind poverty and inequality are what politicians should be addressing. These are what do have a drastic impact on people from poor backgrounds – job shortages. Low wages. The high costs of housing. The inability to make a decent living unless you are highly educated. There are grievances among many people, rooted in these factors – and the response among mainstream politicians, left and right, to any desires for change which they generate, is generally to scapegoat immigrants, or benefit claimants; before continuing with renewed vigour, and even deeper cynicism, on the same trajectory. This is fertile ground in which demagogues can flourish; and as long as it persists, the more dangerous members of society will continue to find themselves popular and empowered.

In contrast to politicians who say one thing, and do another, the likes of Trump have the air of honesty. They sound sympathetic. They seem like they have the answers – and that they’re on your side. This is not the case – but who else is offering any of these things? It is also worth asking yourself this: if you like circumstances the way they currently are, is that outlook free from problem, given the dreadful conditions of many other peoples’ lives? Are you among the majority of the electorate – and if so, for how long?


Further reading

It’s noteworthy how similar the support bases for Trump in America, and Ukip in Britain are; and there are enough similarities between the rhetoric and stated policy-aims of these two political entities to make a comparison worthwhile.

The demographics behind Ukip’s vote base are predominantly white, older generations, less-educated, with a slightly higher ratio of male to female voters – overwhelmingly in the lowest two social classes. See Ipsos Mori’s data on ‘The 2015 election – who voted for whom?’

Among Trump’s supporters, just over half are female; but otherwise the characteristics are the same: poor, older generations, white, and less-educated. See the Hoover Institution’s data in ‘Decoding Trump’s Supporters‘. See also ‘‘I won everything’: just who are Donald Trump’s supporters?‘ in The Guardian; and ‘Who are Donald Trump’s loyal supporters?‘ by the BBC.

One factor of significance which I have not attempted to evaluate herein is alluded to by the BBC piece: namely, that Trump’s supporters are extremely negative about the media. This finding was drawn from a focus group, conducted by a Republican called Frank Luntz, as reported by the Wall Street Journal; but it’s not clear what the root of their antipathy towards the media really is, beyond its negative coverage of Trump himself.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any more illuminating research on this issue available at present. Hopefully it’s an area of study which will be pursued during the upcoming months. It is psychologically interesting, however, how Trump’s supporters appear to take journalistic criticism of Trump as a reaffirmation of their own outlook; and worth considering the sense of victimisation which proliferates this. It is, of course, completely untenable to suggest that Donald Trump is one of life’s victims. It does not preclude his supporters being ones. Their affinity for Trump is of undoubted significance, therefore; despite its incongruity.