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Mutt & Jeff: Double entry

Sections: Columns Published

I’m a columnist, not a communist.

I believe it’s a good idea to divide a sheet of paper by a vertical line, creating two columns, a device making honest comparisons possible. By this simple means, one can tally shared characteristics as well as identify where differences lie. The tally can be rough or finely calibrated, depending on the accuracy desired. How different are A and B? What are their shared characteristics?

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A sheet of paper divided into two columns can be a most useful tool. It can keep me honest. It can dispel prejudice, make me face my discrepancies.          

I have my share of prejudices. Overcoming them is what I call education. I learn by replacing ignorance with information, sometimes a slow and painful process. But what a joy it is to learn. I learn by comparing one thing with another.

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Another tool in the shed is that prerequisite of reasonable discourse, the definition. It’s always a good idea to know what it is we’re talking about before we get too excited. Sometimes people get offended when I ask for a definition, but really it’s so basic. First comes the general category, then the specific. It should be simple.

How are we going to coexist as civilized human beings when we can’t agree to define terms? Just wondering. So here are two basic ideas, one columnar and one definitive. Divide a sheet in half to facilitate comparisons. Identify a general category, then specify. The applications are many, but here’s one.

Let’s say I’m concerned about whether or not our president, Donald Trump, is a demagogue. I could compare him to other demagogues, or I could compare him to a previous president to see which is more demagogic.  

First of all, a definition. Looking at the Oxford Dictionary of English: Demagogue. A political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.

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I see there’s an extra concern. Do I understand the key terms in the definition? Are any of the terms problematic? Well, yes.  How do I tell a popular desire from an unpopular one? When the population is divided fifty-fifty on some issues, it seems impossible to distinguish the popular from the unpopular. Perhaps we should throw our hands in the air and declare that meaning is irrelevant. When in trouble, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.

Maybe it’s not as bad as all that. For one thing, we can at least agree on the generic part of the definition: a political leader. All demagogues are political leaders. All presidents have been political leaders. Which ones were demagogues? James Knox Polk? William McKinley? Taft? By thumbing through the history books we can get an idea about which presidents appealed to popular desires. What was the prevailing will of the people in each president’s time? Did that president appeal to popular desires? What were the prejudices of the time? Did the president in question stand against popular prejudices?

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I’ve got my sheet of paper out. I’m making two lists. Who should we put in column A? Column B? Maybe Obama and Trump. There’s limited space, so let’s go with that. They’re both political leaders, so I’m putting a check mark in both columns. Next, taking a cue from Martha Haun’s Theory of Demagoguery (1971) I’ll consider the trait of hunger for public office. Obama and Trump no doubt qualify. Wouldn’t that characterize all politicians? Imagine the amount of ambition it takes to mount a campaign for the presidency. So far, I see that they are both political leaders and both ambitious.

I’d like to propose some boundaries for the term “demagogue.” Communication theorists find the term difficult to pin down. On the one hand, a demagogue is no mere charlatan or flimflam artist. On the other, he’s less than a full-on dictator. Something in-between.

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So Trump can’t be both a Hitler and a demagogue. The man with the Charlie Chaplin mustache begin assassinating his rivals rather early in his career. He had Ernst Rohm executed in July, 1934 during the Night of the Long Knives. General von Schleicher and his wife were shot dead in the doorway of their house that same evening (Shirer). Hundreds more faced SS firing squads within a few days. People who equate Trump with Hitler should note this. How many times has Trump ordered the execution of a political rival?

As I peruse my sheet of paper, I see that Obama and Trump are both political leaders and that both have desired political office. I haven’t made much progress in determining if either is a demagogue. It will be slow going — so many categories remain unexplored. There isn’t a tidy conclusion.