Jennifer Mercieca

American Demagogue

Air Date: April 27, 2020

Texas A&M scholar Jennifer Mercieca discusses her new book “Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is author of the new Texas A & M University Press volume “Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.” Jennifer Mercieca writes about American political discourse, especially as it relates to citizenship, democracy, and the presidency, and has authored previously two books about political rhetoric, “Founding Fictions, and the “Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency.” Welcome, Jennifer.


MERCIECA: It’s my pleasure.


HEFFNER: Thanks for being here. Congratulations on the book.


MERCIECA: Thank you.


HEFFNER: This is some of the paraphernalia we have accompanying the book “Demagogue for President,” so look it up. It’s an academic volume, but it has wide accessible reach beyond the ivory tower. Let’s start with the term genius because I know when you created the title, there was some Twitter conversation amongst you and fellow scholars and journalists about genius. What is he doing ingeniously, what is he doing successfully as a demagogue, what makes him a demagogic genius?


MERCIECA: Yeah, it is a controversial thing, right? So Trump will tell you he’s a genius. He’ll tell you he’s a rhetorical genius. He also tells you not to pay any attention to the way he says things, that concern over how he says it is, you know, concern over political correctness or is women trying to police men. He is very consistent in the strategies that he uses. He uses strategies that are designed to do very specific things that he needs to do in the moment, whether that’s attract attention or divert attention or you know, threaten people. He’s very good at knowing the right thing to say to prevent himself from being held accountable. So a demagogue is an unaccountable leader and Donald Trump is a genius, unfortunately, at using rhetoric to prevent himself from being held accountable.


HEFFNER: So he’s a stable genius in establishing a would be autocracy. I mean he wants to stabilize a rhetoric. He’s not stable for the country, but he is stabilizing or cultivating, potentially a very stable autocracy, especially if he’s re-elected. You describe some of the tactics there. You say diversion; you and George Lakoff also talk about projection. Is that not the most frequent utterance of demagoguery that he employs: projection, meaning he will state something as fact that he is accusing someone else of being, or a policy of being when in fact it reflects the exact nature of his character or his policy.


MERCIECA: Yeah, he does use projection the way you describe it. In rhetorical terms, we would call that a tu quoque, which is an appeal to hypocrisy. Which is a dominant figure of our era really. It’s a way of undermining trust, right, so a person doesn’t have standing because they’re complicit or a person doesn’t have standing because you know, they have done it too or you know, whatever. There’s lots of different ways that you can make that claim. Well, Trump does that sort of widespread. And so it sounds like he’s projecting, but what he’s trying to do is undermine. So would he really, what he does that I’ve noticed that is authoritarian and is demagoguery is using the tu quoque, but also he uses ad baculum, which are threats of force or intimidation. And he’s just a master at wielding communication as force. So whether that’s overwhelming the new cycle or whether it’s saying you know, reporters will be sued for liable or that media companies are going down the tubes or you know, threatening people who are protesting him in rallies, you know, those are all different ways that he exerts force over the conversation in a way that it’s very difficult to respond to him. And he just is able to use that force to dominate the conversation,


HEFFNER: Whether it’s on Twitter or on the lawn outside of the White House, you’re basically saying it’s everything in the kitchen sink when it comes to Trump and demagoguery. It’s not just the projection, it’s the intimidation, threat of violence and of course his Twitter feed as he became president seemed more and more like a mirror on his rhetoric as president. And you say, this is the new presidential. When you say this is the new presidential, we hearken back to one or two other examples of presidents who were masters of the harangue you might say the haranguer in chief; to me the only precedent for Donald Trump really in the history of the presidency, a consistent analog would be Andrew Johnson and maybe Andrew Jackson to some extent too. But you study the origin story of demagoguery from the American experience and our citizenship. Do you likewise liken it to any other history of demagoguery because to me, we’ve had 45 presidents and Donald Trump resembles only two of them and maybe not even entirely.


MERCIECA: I think that’s right. I do see a lot of similarities between Trump and Andrew Jackson in particular. And so, yeah, in my book, I say that Trump is probably the most successful demagogue in American history and it’s because I’m thinking of Andrew Jackson maybe is more effective in history, and I’m not sure what the answer will be. And what I mean by that is Andrew Jackson was the master of rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies, right? He wielded that power, used the federal government to do that. To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy is an aphorism that emerged during the Jacksonian era to defend Jacksonian policies. You know, he said, let the Supreme Court make me when the Supreme Court said that he couldn’t remove the native population to the West of the Mississippi. And of course the Trail of Tears was the result. But at the same time, Andrew Jackson was presidential, so Trump will claim to be modern day presidential. Andrew Jackson loved formality. He loved you know, speaking elegantly, women claim he was charming. I guess the same could be said of Donald Trump, I don’t know.


HEFFNER: In certain circles.


MERCIECA: But he definitely performed the presidency in a very restrained way rhetorically. In fact, when he left office, he gave a farewell address and though he had been championing, that’s a hard word to say, democracy for years he called the nation of Republic eight times in his very short farewell address. So he didn’t overturn the government quite as much as he seemed like he was, based on his rhetoric or as much as his conservative critics feared he would. So we’ll see how history remembers them and compares them.


HEFFNER: Well, it’s interesting you say that about Jackson because in some ways you’re saying that he was like Trump a successful or genius demagogue, but he was different rhetorically and in terms of how he occupied the dignity of the office




HEFFNER: Or not reducing it to some God-awful reality TV show. Right. On the other hand, if you go and read Brenda Wineapple’s book about Andrew Johnson and the first impeachment, Andrew Johnson had a vocabulary and diction that was much more like Donald Trump. And he was acquitted from his impeachment inquiry. He was impeached, ultimately acquitted by one vote like Trump, but he suffered politically as a result of that language. Trump with his loyalists and with the media continue to, Trump continues to benefit from being the exploiter in chief of what we could say are fabrications, fictions, conspiracies, and a lot of times bigotry and hate. So from your study of the rhetoric, how do you counteract it?


MERCIECA: One of the differences between Andrew Johnson and Andrew Jackson and presidential, and what we have with Trump is the evolution in the history of the way that the president communicated with the public. So during the Jackson and Johnson era is what we call the pre-rhetorical presidency era, meaning that the rhetorical presidency is that the president uses rhetoric to speak directly to the people. Prior to about Teddy Roosevelt, that didn’t happen. There was a lot of restraint from the Executive Branch and there wasn’t a tradition of presidents speaking directly to the people. From Teddy Roosevelt through the 20th Century, we have the rhetorical presidency era, which is where the president goes over the head of Congress, speaks directly to the people, tries to use the people to put pressure on Congress to get the president’s agenda passed. And in so doing we have elevated the presidency at the expense of Congress and some people think we’ve disfigured the constitution in doing that. So Trump represents the post-rhetorical presidency, starting at George W. Bush and since, so since we’ve had the ability to communicate directly outside of the media filter with average Americans, the president has used public relations and propaganda techniques to speak directly to the people. And that’s post-rhetorical in that they’re going over the heads of Congress and around the news filter. Prior to the post-rhetorical presidency, presidents and the media largely cooperated. They had a reciprocal, mutually dependent relationship. The media needed information from the president. The president needed the media to disseminate that information. Over the course of the late 20th century, starting with Watergate, right, we start to get journalists who are more antagonistic towards the presidency. We also start to see with the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle with you know, just the way that the news business needed to start making money all of a sudden in the mid 90s, which wasn’t necessarily the case prior to that, we started to see a more competitive relationship. And so you can look at things like sound bytes and see that, you know, in the 1970s, the average sound byte of someone who was campaigning for office was 90 seconds.




MERCIECA: Uninterrupted. They would just let the president or the candidate talk forever, you know, for our era. Now it’s like six, seven seconds tops. It’s so, you know, they really…


HEFFNER: That’s Neil Postman right there.


MERCIECA: Exactly. So they really editorialize. And so that really created this situation where candidates and presidents really needed to figure out a way to go around, you know, these media gatekeepers. And so George W. Bush was the first one that we noticed doing it. If you think about what Obama did in 2008, he texted people, right, so he communicated information like who his choice for Vice President would be directly to his supporters via text message. He had an email database of tens of millions of people that he could communicate with directly. He was connected to 90 percent of the American electorate via Facebook. Right. So all of the techniques that we’ve seen Trump use, actually Obama used first and very successfully in 2008, and 2012. So where Trump is different is that he is modern day presidential. So he uses the post-rhetorical presidency of speaking directly to the people going around the news filter going over the heads of Congress but he does it in a way that is designed to be entertaining and engaging. So he works in the attention economy the same way that every App, every TV show, every social media feed does. And he has figured out that outrage is a recipe for getting the nation’s attention. He’s been very successful at it.


HEFFNER: Well, but you don’t seem to suggest that the media have adequately defined him historically, not alleging that he’s new or post rhetorical presidential, but that he’s dictatorial. I mean, what you described is not something new. It’s Francisco Franco. It’s a whole litany of folks who’ve,




HEFFNER: We’ve witnessed take over countries,


MERCIECA: I call him a dangerous demagogue because he uses weaponized communication strategies which deny consent,



MERCIECA: And he does that through provoking outrage. So, but what I’m trying to say is that it makes sense within this history of the relationship between the press and the presidency, and without understanding that background, I don’t think you can understand how to control him, which was the question.


HEFFNER: OK but. Exactly. But not control him as much as fix the problem, which may not include controlling him, but may be electing someone who models a different discourse. So –


MERCIECA: It’s a systemic problem at this point.


HEFFNER: Yeah. So what’s the solution to the problem at this juncture?




HEFFNER: From your point of view?


MERCIECA: Yeah. So there’s a couple of things. So first of all, in my book, I try to explain his rhetorical strategies and why they work and how he uses them, because I think that the standard for judging any political figure is whether or not their rhetoric promotes democratic deliberation and democracy. So the most democratic solution to combating dangerous demagoguery is to let people decide for themselves, right? So it’s not me telling you what you should think, but it’s me showing you what he does and how it works, and you get to decide for yourself if you like that or you don’t and if you think that’s good for democracy. So I think that’s one thing that we can do. The other thing is that we are seeing other post-rhetorical strategies that are not outrage based. And you know, it’s a new campaign. So I think people are testing them. One, and I think that this is an unfortunate one, but one is Michael Bloomberg’s strategy, which is a paid post-rhetorical strategy. He’s going around the news filter by placing, you know, I saw a billion ads or 2 billion ads so far, just crazy. I’m leery of that model. It could be effective. So that’s not my qualm. It’s more like I don’t think you should get to buy that much interest in airtime. I don’t think that you should get to buy a presidency. There’s another model that I actually think is really savvy and also joyful and good for democracy. And that’s the model that Elizabeth Warren is using. Elizabeth Warren has the selfie campaign, which is fantastic, right? So she spends hours taking selfies with people who attend her events. And she does that because she knows that that promotes connection and horizontal spread of her message. So everyone who gets a selfie with her will of course post it on all of their social media feeds and send it to their mother and be really enthusiastic about her campaign. And so that can drive attention and engagement in some of the same ways that we see people getting attention and engagement with other ways of doing it. So, you know, we don’t know what’s going to happen with these different models, but I’m paying attention to that and I’m trying to see what you know, I think is the best. And so far that’s the one that to me seems more democratic and more joyful and less outrage based. So…


HEFFNER: That is heartening. I’m so glad.




HEFFNER: Is there anything more to expound on in that category of selfie campaign. What else good can you talk about?


MERCIECA: What other good things are there? Well, I mean, so one thing that’s really good is that people are so attentive to Donald Trump and what’s going on. I mean, so on the one hand it’s exhausting, but on the other hand you know, Americans are interested in politics for the first time in a while and they’re wanting to defend norms and the constitution. And they’re also, I think, questioning established rules. Like, you know, I talked about the rhetorical presidency model and the way that the press and the presidency cooperated. You know, I think there’s a lot of criticism of that model that’s legitimate, right? Like why should the media get to be the gatekeepers? Why should they get to set the agenda? And that definitely is a part of the background of both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns. I think that’s healthy.


HEFFNER: What about the inspirational model that you talked about? One of your first books, Barack Obama, Pete Buttigieg has seemed to channel that or try to emulate that. To me, the West Wing and Matt Santos is the best example of how you go from a brokered convention to a unified electorate and that that may be a third option after Bloomberg’s paid billions. And Liz’s selfies. How about just sheer inspiration?


MERCIECA: Yeah, I mean, so I think that Buttigieg is doing a great job of trying to speak to the middle.


HEFFNER: Is there a rhetoric that can resuscitate that error of Obama or proceeding Obama where words and facts mattered? Is there an element of inspiration that can recapture the rhetoric era and kind of shift us back from the post-rhetoric era?




HEFFNER: So we’re not going back to,


MERCIECA: Yeah, it’s an interesting…


HEFFNER: A Kennedy or, or even Reagan model?


MERCIECA: The post-rhetorical presidency model is an institutional argument, right? So unless we took away everyone’s cell phones, emails and social media, there’s no way that we’re going back to a rhetorical presidency model where the media just gets to be the gatekeeper and there isn’t the chaos of us all having communication. But there is of course the ability for an inspirational president or campaign. I don’t know if that’s what the nation wants in this moment. So what I think is good about what Buttigieg is doing and some others is that they’re trying to speak to the middle ground to say that there’s more in common in the United States than people would like you to believe, right? And so it’s a non -outrage based model. It’s trying to tamper outrage and say, you know, let’s be calm. Let’s think about problems, solve problems and let’s work together. I think that can be inspiring.


HEFFNER: When Trish Roberts Miller was here, we talked about how the president invokes humor or employs humor to mask some of his authoritarian or to illustrate some of his authoritarian goals. One thing that President Trump did recently was call out not just a judge, but a juror in a trial. Now, I don’t know if Andrew Jackson or Andrew Johnson did that, but is there any, any history of an American president, to your knowledge, really calling out a juror in such a deliberate attack on our criminal justice system? The, the basic fabric, integrity of our Republic or democracy as, as you see it, that your peers, your neighbors are on juries and they should not be called out for any reason.


MERCIECA: I can’t think of another example of a president doing that.


HEFFNER: I mean, isn’t that, that’s such a visceral, painful, unmistakable attack on our country?


MERCIECA: That’s right. So one of the things that I do in my book is I explain how there’s an analog to how a person weaponizes communication with Ziblatt and Levitsky’s “How Democracies Die,” right? So they offer for rules or ways that you would know that a democracy was eroding. One of them was violating the democratic rules of the game, right? So violating the constitution, democratic norms, Trump is absolutely doing that when he’s calling out jurors and others. The second one was de-legitimizing political opposition. And Trump absolutely is doing that when he’s using ad hominem attacks when he’s saying that a judge is illegitimate, which he did of course during the campaign in 2016 and he’s done consistently throughout. Another one is condoning violence. And when Trump is weaponizing communication in the way that he is, right, when he’s threatening someone, he’s putting them out for public ridicule, shame and attacks, that’s condoning violence.


HEFFNER: And it’s not just Trump. I mean to think that Lindsey Graham on his Twitter has a photo of him and Justice Kavanaugh as their profile picture. Like there are you know a unit, they’re one person and the same, give me a break. You’re not a strict constructionist; you’re not a constitutionalist when you are proposing that you are the same as the Judicial Branch, that you should think one and the same. And the same thing goes for Trump when he is constantly bemoaning decisions and intimidating the judges and justices, including the two that he’s appointed: rule in my favor.




HEFFNER: I mean that, that is, that is such a nonpartisan interpretation. I mean if you just want to analyze Lindsey Graham and his conduct, it’s one thing to jam judges through the Senate confirmation process. Parties are going to be power hungry when they have the opportunity to do that. It’s another thing to say we are one and the same.


MERCIECA: Trump has enabled the Republican Party to enjoy the pleasure of violating norms, right? So when Trump gets away with doing something, then other people realize they can get away with doing it too.


HEFFNER: Isn’t that part of it? The pleasure they’re deriving, but in your words, pleasure. And at some point that demonic idea, you know, that we are deliberately breaking norms and we are taking pride in it. Is that something, as we just conclude here, Jennifer, that is intrinsic to demagoguery too, the enjoyment of depriving people of democracy or norms?


MERCIECA: Yeah. Well, so Jason Stanley would say that it’s fascist. If you read, I know you’ve read his book cause you had him on. And, and it is right. So, for example, you know, everyone who attends a Trump rally enjoys the pleasure of violating the norms of political correctness. When you see the things that people are saying, wearing on their shirts, it’s really toxic and there’s a pleasure in that. It might be a sadistic pleasure, but you know, people really are seeing Trump as a vehicle for breaking the rules


HEFFNER: Well and clearly the, the Republicans ignore the psychological aftermath for a nation that has to recover from this trauma. But just take us, if you can, inside of the heads of normal folk, not diehard Republican voters, but just normal folk who will support Republicans as they invariably will in some states like Texas, irrespective of demagoguery, when demagoguery is apparent and even visible to voters, but that they ignore it. Is that something that you can respond to and how we can think about it?


MERCIECA: Yeah, especially because I live in Texas. I have a lot of experience with Republican Trump voters. My neighbors on all sides are Republican Trump voters and dear friends of ours. So we talk about this a lot. And, and my neighbors are not thrilled with Trump. Personally they don’t like him. They would like to vote for a Democrat this time, but they’re nervous about who the Democrats will nominate. Some of them didn’t want to vote for him in 2016 but they were absolutely not going to vote for Hillary Clinton. And if you look at the exit polling from 2016, that was pretty common. More people said they voted for Trump because they wanted to vote against Clinton then because they Trump to be president. So I think a lot will depend on who the candidates are this time.


HEFFNER: Jennifer, thank you so much for being here today.


MERCIECA: My pleasure.


HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit the open mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.