At the Throat of American Democracy, Conclusion

Published: January 25, 2022

By Jim Lichtman
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“To meet the challenge of our times, so that we can later look back upon this era not as one of which we need be ashamed but as a turning point on the way to a better America, we must first defeat the enemy within.”—Robert F. Kennedy

How close did we come to the end of American democracy on January 6, 2021?

Father Charles Coughlin was taken down when listeners began to catch-on to his anti-Semitic rants and the Catholic church pulled the plug on his broadcasting career. Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy’s reign came to an end when his strong-arm tactics of “guilt by association” were publicly exposed by journalist Edward R. Murrow.

Donald Trump, the false prophet from New York, demagogued his way into the presidency by validating the lies and conspiracies his constituents obsessively cling to: Mexicans are rapists; Barrack Obama was born in Kenya; Hillary Clinton was behind a human trafficking and child sex ring from a pizza parlor.

Donald Trump may lack education having bribed and cheated his way through a series of prestigious schools, but this poorly spoken man knows exactly how to exploit the fears of supporters enabling them to confuse passion for patriotism.

Demagoguery in the US has evolved from a priest to a senator to the President of the United States. Trump lives because his Republican loyalists in Congress supply the oxygen he needs to spread his poison: discontent; lies, and the violence we all witnessed on January 6.

So how do we defeat this new enemy within?

Of all the information I have researched on the topic, Otis White—who develops strategic plans for local governments and civic organizations—has some of the best wisdom on the topic. 

Don’t return fire when attacked. Demagogues are masters at name-calling, and you can’t win by trying to match them insult for insult. Remember: They aim to turn politics into a them-vs.-you battle. Don’t take the bait. 

Don’t make fun of demagogues. The temptation will be strong to poke fun at their clownish behavior, but keep in mind that demagogues rise by telling people that powerful others are taking advantage of them. Treat them as clowns and it only bolsters their claims. Not only are people taking advantage of you, the demagogue will tell his followers, they’re laughing at you as well. 

Treat the demagogue like a serious politician. When he promises fantastic things, analyze his promises the way you would a more serious leader’s. Tell the public what it would cost, what it would yield in benefits, who it would benefit, and who would pay. Don’t exaggerate. Don’t condemn. Just state the facts. But make sure your analysis is widely available and discussed. 

Keep pointing out the issues not being addressed. Demagogues tend to have narrow bandwidths. They talk endlessly about their hobbyhorse issues but are easily bored by other, often more important matters. Use that boredom to emphasize the winning message: This mayor doesn’t want to do his job. 

Praise responsible politicians. Find some “workhorses” and praise their efforts to take on the city’s neglected issues. (How about a “Workhorse Award?”) Let others draw the distinction between these workhorses and the showhorse in the mayor’s office. 

Talk past the demagogue to his followers. Some unhappy citizens sent you a message in the election that they felt neglected. Find out what is bothering them and make their concerns part of your communications. You won’t win all of them over, but you may lessen the anger that is fueling the demagogue’s rise. 

Beware of the manufactured crisis. As demagogues fail, they sometimes try to gin up support by creating crises—then demanding that others fall in line behind them. If this happens, start asking questions: Is this a genuine crisis or a problem the city has faced time and again? If it’s an old problem in a hyped-up guise, how has it been dealt with in the past? How did those solutions compare with what the mayor is suggesting now? If you can direct the debate along these lines, calmness will replace crisis. And there’s nothing less useful to a demagogue than a calm city.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the National Archives can release White House documents to the House select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. One document shockingly reveals that Trump had prepared an executive order that would empower the Secretary of the Defense to “seize, collect, retain and analyze all machines, equipment, electronically stored information, and material records required for retention…”

How close did we come to the end of American democracy on January 6, 2021?

Too close.

And we’re not out of the woods yet.


  1. Good suggestions Jim to stop “validating the lies and conspiracies his constituents obsessively cling to…”
    Lets work on: “Don’t return fire when attacked…Keep pointing out the issues not being addressed…Talk past the demagogue to his followers…”

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