The Difference Between a Leader and a Demagogue

Republican candidates pose for a group photo before the start of the second GOP debate on September 16. Among the current crop of presidential candidates, the author asks, who is a leader and who is a demagogue, exploiting people’s irrational fears to fortify power? Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

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Among the current crop of candidates for president of the United States, who exhibits leadership and who doesn’t?

Leadership isn’t just the ability to attract followers. Otherwise, some of the worst tyrants in history would be considered great leaders. They weren’t leaders; they were demagogues. There’s a difference.

A leader brings out the best in his followers. A demagogue brings out the worst.

Leaders inspire tolerance. Demagogues incite hate.

Leaders empower the powerless; they give them voice and respect. Demagogues scapegoat the powerless; they use scapegoating as a means to fortify their power.

Leaders calm peoples’ irrational fears. Demagogues exploit them.

My list of great American leaders would include Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Frances Perkins and Martin Luther King Jr. 

In his second inaugural address near the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln urged his followers to act with “malice toward none, with charity for all.”

In his first inaugural during the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt told Americans the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts.”

In 1963, as African-Americans demanded their civil rights, King urged his followers “not to seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

My list of American demagogues would include Senator “Pitchfork” Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, who supported lynch mobs in the 1890s; Father Charles Coughlin, whose anti-Semitic radio rants in the 1930s praised Nazi Germany; Senator Joseph McCarthy, who conducted the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s; and Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, a staunch defender of segregation.

These men inspired the worst in their followers. They scapegoated the weak and set Americans against each other. They used fear to stoke hate and thereby entrench their power.

Back to the current crop of presidential candidates: Who are the leaders and who are the demagogues? The leaders have sought to build bridges with those holding different views.

For example, Senator Rand Paul spoke at the University of California, Berkeley, seeking common ground with the university’s mostly progressive students. Senator Bernie Sanders traveled to Liberty University, where most students and faculty disagree with his positions on gay marriage and abortion. “I came here today,” he said, “because I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.”

Other candidates, by contrast, have fueled division. Ben Carson has said being gay is a choice. “A lot of people who go into prison straight and when they come out they’re gay,” he says. “So did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question.”

Carson has also argued that a Muslim should not be allowed to become president. He “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

Donald Trump, meanwhile, has charged that Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” He has lashed out at those who, he charges, come to America to give birth so that their children will be, in his term, “anchor babies.” He argues that “we have to start a process where we take back our country. Our country is going to hell.”

And after one of his followers charged that Muslims “have training camps growing where they want to kill us”—and then asked Trump, “When can we get rid of them?”—Trump didn’t demur. He said that “a lot of people are saying that” and that “we’re going to be looking at that.”

Nor has Trump inspired the best in his followers. At one recent rally, after he denigrated workers who are in this country illegally, his supporters shoved and spit on immigrant activists who had shown up to protest. At other Trump rallies, his followers have shouted at Latino U.S. citizens, telling them to “go home” and yelling, “If it ain’t white, it ain’t right.”

Trump followers have told immigrant activists to “clean my hotel room, bitch.” They’ve beaten up and urinated on the homeless, and joked that “you can shoot all the people you want that cross illegally.”

America is the only democracy in the world where anyone can declare himself or herself a candidate for the presidency—and, armed with enough money, possibly even win. Which makes it all the more important that we distinguish leaders from demagogues.

The former ennoble our society. The latter degrade and endanger it—even if they lose.

Robert B. Reich, chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective Cabinet secretaries of the 20th century. He has written 13 books, including the best-sellers Aftershock and The Work of Nations. His latest, Beyond Outrage, is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause. His film, Inequality for All, is now available on Netflix, iTunes, DVD and on demand.