Gordon Allport on the Program of the Demagogue

In 1949, Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman wrote a book titled Prophets of Deceit. In his 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice, personality psychologist Gordon Allport summarized Lowenthal’s and Guterman’s findings into a section he called “The Program of the Demagogue.”

If you have ever been able to get through a Donald Trump rally, you will recognize the points Allport summarized. It is as if Trump is reading from a script. Here is the excerpt from 1958 version of The Nature of Prejudice (p. 389-390).*

The Program of the Demagogue

In their volume Prophets of Deceit, Lowenthal and Guterman have analyzed a large number of similar speeches and tracts. There is a sameness of protest and hatred in all of them. What the demagogue is saying seems to boil down to the following points. 2

You’ve been cheated. Your social position is insecure because of the machinations of Jews, New Dealers, communists, and other agents of change. Sincere and plain folk like us are always dupes. We must do something.

There is widespread conspiracy against us. It is being engineered by devils — by Wall Street, Jewish bankers, internationalists, the State Department. We must do something.

The conspirators are sexually corrupt too. They “roll in wealth, bathe in liquor, surround themselves with the seduced daughters of America.” “Oriental erotics debauch youth for the purpose of wrecking gentile morale.” Aliens enjoy all the forbidden fruit.

Our present government is corrupt. The two-party system is a sham Democracy is a “trick word.” “Liberalism is anarchy.” Civil liberties are “silly liberties.” We cannot be universalistic in our ethics. We must look out for ourselves

We can’t trust the foreigners. Internationalism is a threat. But we can’t trust our own government either. Alien termites bore within. Washington is a “Bolshevik rat’s nest.”

Our enemies are low animals: reptiles, insects, germs, sub-human. Extermination is called for; we must do something.

There is no middle ground. The world is divided. Those who are not for us are against us. It is a war between haves and have-nots; between true Americans and “foreigners.” “The Talmudic philosophy of Europe- Asia-Africa and Nudeal is directly opposite that of Christian.”

There must be no polluting of blood. We must keep racially pure and elite. Vile contamination comes from dealing at all with the moral lepers of liberalism.

But with disaster around the corner what can you do? Poor, simple, sincere people need a leader. Behold I am he. It isn’t the American nation that is wrong, it is the corrupt men in office. Change the personnel. I am available. I’ll change the whole smelly mess. You’ll have a happier and safe life.

The situation is too urgent to permit the luxury of thought. Just give me your money, and I’ll tell you later what to do. Everybody is against me . I am your martyr. The press, the Jews, the stinking bureaucrats are trying to shut me up. Enemies plot against my life, but God will protect me. I’ll lead you. And I’ll ignite the public mind everywhere. And I’ll liquidate millions of bureaucrats and Jews.

Maybe we’ll march on Washington . . . 

This is the playbook of the Trump GOP. He and Fox News have convinced his base that they have been cheated and threatened by immigrants and the Democrats. Immigrants are devalued and debased. They are the problem. He will stop the invasion. The country was a disaster before he came along and we needed him to make America great again. He alone can save us. He alone can drain the swamp. We must stick together against the attacks of a liberal press, the enemy of the people. They are godless but God is on my side.

Allport said in the 1950s that the aim of this kind of demagogue is “a totalitarian revolution following the pattern of fascism.” With hopefulness, he added:

American democracy has a remarkable resiliency, for it has with stood such demagogy for decades, in fact, since before the founding of the nation. But today, the aggravating of strains, the cultural lag (i.e., the failure of social skills to keep pace with technological) have made the appeal greater than ever before. It is not a movement that is born overnight. Its seeds are always present, and its growth may be gradual and imperceptible up to a point, and then sudden and alarming. It waxes and wanes with the rise and fall of particular demagogues. But sometimes its roots gain a firm hold in congressional committees, in local and state political groups, in certain newspapers, and among certain radio commentators.

On the whole, the democratic tradition seems still in the ascendancy. Each fascistic movement generates a strong counter-current. Yet the mounting of social strain and the acceleration of social change in our day create a precarious condition. The question is whether realistic diagnoses and policies can be evolved to ameliorate domestic and international ills and to improve men’s outlook before panic and fear drive them in larger numbers to embrace demagogic nostrums.

Allport’s question haunts me. I think he has the situation diagnosed but I don’t believe our psychology or our policies have kept up with the pace of social and technological change today. Panic and fear drove a sufficient number of presidential voters to elect a spectacularly ill-equipped reality television actor and businessman of questionable success. Panic and fear appear to be driving a defense of Trump’s abuse of power based on something other than reality. Evangelical placation of everything Trump does is almost certainly driven by panic and fear. Surely they are not walking by faith.

I hope our democratic institutions will survive the panic and fear whipped up by Trump. The social strain is here, accelerated social change is here and I believe we are in a precarious condition.  Here’s hoping that our democratic tradition remains the ascendant attitude with enough of us to thwart The Program of the Demagogue.