Patricia Roberts-Miller

Unbecoming a Democracy

Air Date: February 10, 2020

University of Texas scholar Patricia Roberts-Miller discusses contemporary demagoguery and its historical origins.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. What is demagoguery, why does it matter, why is it effective, especially in its modern form and what can we do about it here on the home front and to the extent possible abroad? Here to answer those questions is my guest today, author of “Demagoguery and Democracy,” Patricia Roberts-Miller is professor of rhetoric and director of the Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Welcome Trish.


HEFFNER: This reminded me of Harry Frankfurt’s little volume, a most moving and timely account of the resurgence of demagoguery and historically contextualized. I wanted to start here: it has been said and one of the chroniclers of Donald Trump’s recent campaign rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania said that his speech there was one of his ugliest and most troubling performances. One of the things he said in this speech that I think was pernicious in particular was, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if he became a dictator.

Now he points to the media when he says that, the cameras in the crowd and says he’s just saying that to toy with them. So he’s masking a wannabe authoritarianism. We all know that would be his true desire, in comedy or at least comic cues to his MAGA audience. Has it ever happened before in your study of rhetoric to mask a willful, an eager demagoguery in a kind of comedy, because he’s serious about wanting to be president for life and he’s only perhaps joking to lighten the mood, but we know what he means.

ROBERTS-MILLER: It’s not just to lighten the mood; it’s also to avoid accountability. So one of the characteristics of demagoguery is that people engaged in it are very careful to make sure that they can’t be really held accountable for exactly what they said. And so that’s why they’ll often engage in what amounts to trolling or joking. But that’s what it’s really about, is so that they, they’re keeping all of their options open in terms of what they can say. And so if they later go back on something, they can always just say that wasn’t really what they meant or, yeah.

HEFFNER: And when we had Jason Stanley here, we asked him about when that translates into the raw fiber of your government and your society changing, in this case devolving into authoritarianism. So based on your knowledge of history from the American experience, but really more broadly when do those jokes become reality?

ROBERTS-MILLER: Well, they’re always kind of reality. I think they become reality when the person making them has power. So people can engage in that kind of refusal to be accountable in the way that people troll on the Internet. And if, and people will make a certain kind of argument on the Internet and if they get called on it, they’ll say, I was just making a joke and you can’t take a joke, but they’re just some jerk on the Internet as opposed to someone who has the authority to make these sorts of things happen. But I think, you know, Huey Long was famous for that kind of thing. For instance Theodore Bilbo was as well, McCarthy continually backed off of his claims. It’s just; it’s unfortunately a way that people are making politics about identity rather than about actually arguing about policies that we can all agree on,

HEFFNER: You write, Trish, in chapter six, “A culture of demagoguery, demagoguery, de-politicizes politics in that it says we don’t have to argue policies and can just rouse ourselves to new levels of commitment to us and purify our community or nation of them.” So us versus them is the basic definition of demagoguery. Expound on that for us.

ROBERTS-MILLER: Yeah. That’s where it all begins. So it says that really we are, we aren’t a world of different people with different needs and different ideas and different perspectives. We aren’t in a place where people can benefit from the disagreement that we might have, by listening to other people who have different experiences. Instead, there’s an “us” and “us” is good and rational and reasonable and right and “them,” and they’re completely wrong. And so the solution to all of our problems is to give all the power to the person or small group of people who really represent us and to purify our world of them.

HEFFNER: Right. Purge.

ROBERTS-MILLER: Absolutely. Yeah.

HEFFNER: So in that context, in the American example now, you have a president whose rhetoric resembles maybe one or two presidents in the past, but not very many. I would say maybe Andrew Johnson and Andrew Jackson; you might highlight other examples or parallels of where Trump mirrors precedent, but it’s rather unprecedented in the extent to which his entire preface, his entire substance of diction and rhetoric is rooted in that: us versus them. That is the starting point, or even the preface to the starting point. So, you know, are there historical examples in America of how we, as we said in the intro, averted course from the framing of demagoguery of our own presidents?

ROBERTS-MILLER: Well, so I would say that JFK engaged in a lot of demagoguery and a lot of “us versus them,” but it wasn’t Americans who were “them.” It was cold war rhetoric. So it was us as Americans unified against the Soviet Union and against communism. So there have been other presidents who engaged in that kind of us versus them. I think what is troubling about Trump is that he’s talking about a them that is Americans. You know, that it’s just people who happen to disagree. And that’s profoundly and fundamentally anti-democratic.

HEFFNER: In the Kennedy and McCarthy era of course, there was internal demagoguing around blacklisting and communists who were accused of being disloyal or treasonous. Could you expect the demagoguery rhetorically to get worse than it is now? And if so, what are you watching for?

ROBERTS-MILLER: Well, let me go back to something that you were saying a minute ago, the, about say someone like McCarthy. We’ve often had people who were maybe one or two steps away from the presidency who are engaged in demagoguery. And it’s often a strategy that presidents had, is that the vice president would be the one who’d be engaged in the more extreme kind of rhetoric. So that’s what Nixon did. That’s what Bush did with Cheney. And you know, there’ve been other instances along those lines. But this is the first time I think that there has been someone whose demagoguery, the President is engaged in that level of demagoguery. And I think, and what worried me, it was, you know, I was working on antebellum rhetoric and seeing even before Trump arose seeing that we were in a culture where a demagogue would arise because there was so much us versus them, but almost so much, and what really worried me is people in an enclave, you know, people only watching news or listening to radio that reinforce, that reinforced their preconceived notions. And a lot of that rhetoric was about how terrible the other side is and how you shouldn’t listen to them. Well, the premise of democracy is that we benefit from listening to people who disagree. We don’t have to listen to everyone. Not all points of view are equally valid, but there are some points of view not ours that are worth hearing. And there was so much discourse about discourse, if that makes sense, there was so much of that kind of discourse that was saying, don’t listen to them. They’re terrible. And that’s what I think really worries me. And so I think what’s got to happen is that we’re not going to get saved from above.

That’s never what’s happened. What has to happen is that citizens and voters and viewers and readers and listeners need to do the work necessary to hear other sides.

HEFFNER: Now that we are where we are and that the political party to which he belongs is unconcerned about the escalation of the rhetoric, to Jason Stanley’s mind at one point, spontaneously or incrementally, there’s going to be a direct consequence of that rhetoric that leads to blood being on Trump’s hands. And that may be said, sort of in the abstract sense or in the cumulative sense of his rhetoric towards the free press and towards journalists. But I really go back to that question of how worse does the language have to get for us to be alert to the problem. And at that point, will it be events transpiring and not words that we see as the problem?

ROBERTS-MILLER: That’s a great question. I don’t know. It’s a short answer, but I think that when demagoguery gets drawn back, it’s because people say that this is too much. And typically it’s in-group, it has to be the other parts of the us that say we’re not going to put up with this anymore. So the, how democracies die is a really good description of the times that people backed off from it. McCarthy got called out by fellow Republicans. That’s, that’s what finally put an end to what he was doing. Roosevelt got called out by fellow Democrats when he was really trying to pack the Supreme Court and do something that was extraordinarily authoritarian and very anti-democratic. So that’s, the words have to get to a point that, that in-group people will call him out.

HEFFNER: Right. I don’t know that we can forecast a more vicious or demeaning rhetoric. I mean, I think that it’s peak vitriol. I don’t,

ROBERTS-MILLER: Well, I mean, I read a lot of Hitler, so there’s still some place to go, but yeah.

HEFFNER: Because you invoke that, I have to ask, was that a technique used by the World War II era authoritarians to mask their actual objectives in a, in a kind of comedy or humor? I mean, I don’t recall Hitler and Mussolini or Franco really injecting a lot of comedy into their routines.


HEFFNER: They did.

ROBERTS-MILLER: Yeah. But it’s the same kind. So that’s why it’s important that it’s the bully kind. So it’s a, it’s a kind where you don’t know if they’re kidding or not. And, I’m kind of fascinated by the way that humor works in demagoguery because for one thing, as I said, it gives, it enables people to be unaccountable. And I first became aware of that, not only in regard to the antebellum pro-slavery rhetoric, but Ann Coulter was a great example of that, of saying things that good and then, and then saying it was just a joke and why can’t you take a joke?

But also I crawl around dark corners on the internet and argue with jerks and they do that all the time, you know, and the second that they get called out and you, and you prove that beyond reasonable doubt, they are completely and totally fabricating information, that’s when they’ll say jokes on you. I was kidding. But the, so it’s always a kick-down humor. It’s a really weird kind of humor. Most humor is sort of self-humor that there’s a, when we make a joke, there’s a little bit of; it’s a jokes on us too. And their humor is always jokes on you. And that’s what Hitler did. So he was famous for, if you listen to some of his speeches, the audience laughing. And one of the most famous is, oh, I should remember the exact date. It’s a 1939 speech about Roosevelt, in response to Roosevelt’s attempt to bring peace and to find some way to kind of resolve things.

And yeah, and the audience is laughing the whole time and it’s completely that kind of satire. And, again, you know, you couldn’t quite figure out what was true. So what’s so one of the things that happened with Hitler was he had said very clearly, very early on in “Mein Kampf” exactly what he was going to do. And people didn’t take it seriously because they thought it was that kind of hyperbole in which he often engaged. And hyperbole has also a way of evading, enabling you to evade any kind of accountability. So yeah, this is actually pretty common.

HEFFNER: In the particular variety that Trump is employing, the variety of, I am going to extend my tenure.

ROBERTS-MILLER: I think with Hitler, it would have been these extreme comments that people thought he was kidding on about and then he could back off if; if it turned out that they weren’t going to work out all that well.

So, but the other person I think of who figures into this as Cleon from ancient Athens and he, and he, the one speech of his that we have at least in Thucydides’ version of events is, yeah, he, you know, he appears he’s advocating genocide and, but he also says, I think democracy is really stupid. And I think that this shows that people actually can’t make decisions. So he’s there in the Assembly saying that democracy is bad and, and implying that he wants someone like him to be, to be completely in charge of things. And it’s not clear if he was kidding or not, but yeah, I think that’s what people often do is say, I’m just going to take over. And –

HEFFNER: The foreseeable backstop, Trish is the 2020 election. If the Democrats did prevail in the Electoral College and it’s indisputable, then it may be Republicans, because you say it has to be in-group who would have to speak up then because his inclination might be to ignore the will of the people or ignore the will of the Electoral College. And they, that is the foreseeable firewall or backstop at this juncture, is it not that that seems to loom the largest right now?

ROBERTS-MILLER: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know what he would do if he lost the election. I, I like to think that he would get, I mean here, here’s the thing to remember when he wanted to hold the G-20 summit at one of his hotels, Republicans balked. So there is a line, and they’ve stopped him, so he can be stopped and I think they would stop him at that point. So I’m not,

HEFFNER: That seems to be, yes, maybe the most extreme scenario. But are there other examples of where you could see this in 2020 playing out, where there is a moderating force on the part of his own party to rein him in?

ROBERTS-MILLER: I think so. I think that they, I think there are a lot of people who recognize that it’s ultimately not in the best interest of the Republican party to tie themselves to someone who is as uncontrollable. And, so that’s what makes them at certain moments at least want to. They he, you know, he’s got a base, but mainly he’s got a propaganda machine. He’s got a – there are certain outlets that he can be counted – that he can absolutely count on to, to do whatever is necessary to support the position that he has taken, even if it means completely contradicting a position that he took two weeks earlier. And I think that’s also what people, what viewers have to say is not enough, that people have to say they actually want to hear fair representations of criticism of him, criticism of his policies, other options that we might have.

HEFFNER: It’s been my stipulation, Trish, that the only person who can defeat Donald Trump in 2020 is one who is both genuinely combative and genuinely conciliatory. Rhetorically that matters in terms of being able to possess that aspiration of our higher ideals. You know, basically the opposite of Trump, but also at the same time being prepared to tango with him and fight fire with fire. President Obama famously, or I would say infamously said to a group of Democrats, I don’t agree with this, this idea of fighting fire with fire. Well, your fire doesn’t have to be lies or bigotry, but you absolutely have to be, to show up for a fight. And so I’m wondering who is most prepared rhetorically to counter Trump?

ROBERTS-MILLER: Clinton beat him. Keep in mind, I mean, Clinton beat him by an extraordinary number of votes. They just happened to be in the wrong place. So I don’t actually think there’s only one candidate who can beat him. I think a lot of different strategies will work with him, but also think, in the same way that I think there’s a weird way in which Trump is not the problem. The problem is our culture of demagoguery that enables somebody like Trump to thrive and succeed that the solution is not going to be which of the candidates we pick. The solution is going to be what voters do.

HEFFNER: I disagree with you. I think that the voters, while they’re not soulless or emotionless creatures, they require certain signals and because those normal signals have been decapitated, there are certain social and political cues that have to be put forward. But argue with me here. I mean, you’re basically saying that the rhetoric of the candidate who opposes Trump can be normal rhetoric of a politician. And I’m saying I think it requires some distinctive qualities.

ROBERTS-MILLER: Yeah, I don’t think so because, because it’s ultimately, it’s not even what the, what that person’s rhetoric is. It’s how that rhetoric gets disseminated and mediated. That’s, and what it is that people consume; what it is that people choose to consume the extent to which they rely on you know, on the mediated sound bites that they get.

HEFFNER: But it can be a chicken and egg. In other words, if President Obama had not delivered that momentous and poignant speech at the National Constitution Center in response to the Reverend Wright controversy, he might not have won against McCain. He might not have been the nominee. I mean there, there are certain moments and contingencies that are decisive here. And so I hear you. I mean, it is a little bit of chicken and egg in terms of how the media and the populace respond to your rhetoric. But I don’t think that we can, I don’t think that Hillary Clinton, for example, rooted her rhetoric enough in history, in the aberration of what Donald Trump would mean. Donald Trump said during the debates and during the campaign, we don’t have a country anymore. I suggested out loud to folks, Hillary Clinton, you need to say we won’t have a democracy anymore if this man is elected. And you know that that wasn’t forthcoming. So rather than belabor our,

ROBERTS-MILLER: But she won!

HEFFNER: Well she won the popular vote,

ROBERTS-MILLER: Yeah, by an extraordinary amount,

HEFFNER: But messaging and rhetoric in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida and North Carolina, that has to be hyper-targeted. So I think you not only need a rhetoric that is going to enable you to resonate with the popular vote, but you really need a state-by-state rhetoric too. I mean, but you’re from Texas,


HEFFNER: So you’re, you’re saying this from your vantage point as a Texan and as a kind of authority on youth culture and discourse, certainly in American political history. So what, say thee about Texas and the rhetoric that would, that would be demanded to counter Trump in Texas?

ROBERTS-MILLER: Well I’ll answer about in terms of instead in terms of Pennsylvania. So I’m really persuaded by Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s “Cyber War” book.


ROBERTS-MILLER: And – because that’s what I was seeing, you know, crawling around the Internet in the summer of 2016 and I was, I was someone who thought Trump was going to win.

HEFFNER: Me too.

ROBERTS-MILLER: And it just, yeah. And it was because of what I was seeing on the Internet. And a lot of what I was seeing was, was, you know, trolling: really amazing trolling. And you know, of course what happens on the Internet is that people share something with a headline, you know, that says Hillary Clinton caught kicking puppies or something. And if you clicked on the link, that wasn’t it at all, so people were, it was something about herbal Viagra, with an astonishingly common number of times.

And so if you, so clearly what’s happening is people are sharing all these links and some of it was, you know, people I didn’t know. Sometimes if you clicked on it, my virus protection would say, absolutely not. You’re not going there. And it would be Russia. It would be you know, some sort of site in Russia. But these were also people I did know who were sharing these things without looking at them, who were sharing these wild rumors about Clinton and things she had said. So the negative campaigning about Clinton is I think actually what made the big difference in that and especially the negative, very targeted negative campaigning in precisely those areas. I think the Democrats didn’t know what they were up to. Now, I’m not saying Clinton was a perfect candidate, I don’t think she was. And I agree with you that there were a lot of problems with her rhetoric. I think that whole basket of deplorables was such a bad mistake. But what I’m saying is, even with her flawed rhetoric, she did really well. And I don’t think it was her rhetoric that lost that election. I think it was that really effective trolling,

HEFFNER: Well, I was one of those people who came to the same conclusion, but not just from the trolling and harassment online, especially on Twitter. I came to that conclusion by looking at depressed youth turnout in anticipation of Election Day in Pennsylvania. I’ll never forget visiting Tampa and Pittsburgh and the depression of young people’s interest was palpable. They weren’t engaged, and the false equivalency narrative rung. True.


HEFFNER: Having said all that, how do you win Texas? How do you win? So you can go back to, you know, your beloved in some quarters, Ann Richards and say you can, you could win that way: A tough kind of Margaret Thatcher style of politics on the Democratic side, but,

ROBERTS-MILLER: But she won because of a fluke and people forget that and people forget the extent to which, you know, there’s all that research that shows a large number of people make the decision about voting at absolutely the last minute.

HEFFNER: That may be true. But in terms of the rhetoric, what would appeal to Texas?

ROBERTS-MILLER: Beto did incredibly well. You know, Beto did very, very well. He did way better than say Wendy Davis did.


ROBERTS-MILLER: Right. And I, and one of the ways he did it though is not just his rhetoric, but he visited every single county in Texas. And I heard him speak at one point where he was saying that he went to places where people said we haven’t seen a Democrat in years. You know, so it’s that it’s, it’s that kind of, you know, on the ground people out there, not engaging in, I mean, I think Clinton did a lot of; the Clinton camp did a lot of really they, believe the polls and then they did really strategic, you know, sort of triage and that probably was not a great idea, that probably would’ve worked against a traditional Republican, but it didn’t work against Trump. So I think the kind of, I think it’s not just what the rhetoric is, but how the rhetoric is getting disseminated.

HEFFNER: Absolutely. In the closing seconds we have, it’s clear that Beto channeled RFK in that every county tour of Texas. Can Elizabeth Warren – or someone else – I mention Warren in particular because of the Oklahoma roots, you know, is there a way for non-Texan candidates, the remainder of the field – to appeal to Texans? Do you see it as a viable strategy because at least in the calculus of some of the candidates, including former vice president Biden, Texas is a purple state in 2020.

ROBERTS-MILLER: Yeah. It’s, it’s not only going to be them, but I think whether they’ve got people on the ground knocking on doors. So I think people who really care about this, you know, that’s as I said, I don’t think we’re going to get saved from the top. I don’t think there’s a Santa Claus candidate. I think instead what it’s going to take is, is people getting out and knocking on doors relentlessly.

HEFFNER: The first precondition is someone whose rhetoric doesn’t alienate the population or at least enough segments in the population to dissuade them from voting. Right. So demagoguery can be galvanizing and boredom can be depressing.


HEFFNER: And so you need an aspirational rhetoric. And I don’t know how you precisely define that, but in the last seconds we have, I just want to give you a chance. What, what is the ideal aspirational rhetoric?

ROBERTS-MILLER: I think you’re absolutely right that it has to be about democracy, that, that’s, that that’s what we need to be talking about right now is we are at a point of a threat to democracy. Democracy is always threatened and always needs defending. But that, that’s, we need to recognize that if we lose democracy, we all lose.

HEFFNER: And we have the power to not elect demagogues. I mean, you can elect demagogues in a democratic system, but I hope that the country is alert to the fact that objectively speaking, the Electoral College elected a demagogue in 2016. With that, Trish, thank you so much for coming here from Austin.


HEFFNER: Pleasure. 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.