How Do We Defeat Demagogues?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Demagoguery is hardly a new problem.  Even so, it waxes and wanes in different places at different times, and the political right in the United States is now in the midst of a full-on embrace of the worst excesses of demagogic hate-mongering.  Can it be defeated?  Not completely, of course, but it should be possible to minimize its damage and send it back into hibernation.

I hope that that is true, in any case.  The problem with demagogues is not merely that they can convince surprising numbers of people to believe harmful nonsense in order to win votes.  The worst kinds of demagogues parlay their initial success by abusing their power in ways that will make them immune to future challenges.  Some demagogues are so popular that the public largely supports their efforts to subvert the political system.  Even they, however, are risk-averse enough to lock down the system to protect themselves from any changes in public sentiment -- not only the possibility of a truly democratic uprising but also the emergence of a rival with even stronger demagogic skills.

Donald Trump is one of the class of demagogues who are never popular with a majority of the people.  Even so, someone in his position knows that if he can stay in power long enough to break the system, being unpopular will no longer matter.

My main purpose today, however, is not to analyze the staying power of demagogues but to note two different styles of demagoguery.  Surprisingly, it turns out that Trump is in some ways the less interesting (but also the less common) of the two.  This inquiry is inspired by a comment on last Friday's Dorf on Law column, where I discussed Ted Cruz's peculiar form of demagoguery.  A reader asked: "This blog post was fascinating. But I have to ask: Now that you have diagnosed Cruz ('style debater'), is there a treatment or cure?"  Good question.
In that column, I drew from my experiences on the collegiate parliamentary debate circuit in the 1980's, both as a competitor and later as a coach.  I should note a minor factual error in that piece, where I wrote that my time on the circuit did not overlap with now-Senator Cruz's.  It turns out that I was still judging at tournaments during Cruz's Freshman and Sophomore years.  This most likely means that I saw him, and I might even have been a judge in one or more of his rounds.  If so, however, he did not make an impression on me.  Some younger debaters who are obvious stars, and others who are obvious jerks, quickly become famous or notorious among the veterans.  Although subsequent news reporting has confirmed that Cruz was indeed hated on the parliamentary debate circuit (and everywhere else, apparently), that reputation either emerged in his last two seasons or was not noxious enough to leave an impression on someone in my position.

Again, that is a minor point, now corrected.  The substantive issue here is the Cruz variant on the demagogy virus.  As I wrote last week, there were (and surely still are) two types of debaters who competed on the parliamentary circuit.  I labeled them "Content Debaters" and "Style Debaters," which requires a bit of clarification.

I suspect that calling someone a style debater evokes images of a William Jennings Bryan wannabe, a smooth, eloquent orator who holds people in rapt attention with flourishes and beautiful words, strung together with skill and delivered with dramatic flair.  As far as I know, Cruz was not one of those, and he certainly shows no sign of any of those skills today.  Even so, he was and is a Style Debater in a sense that is best defined negatively, that is, he was not a Content Debater.

If that sounds like a dodge, please stay with me.  Style Debaters, either by choice or by necessity, do not make arguments in any meaningful sense.  They do not try to convince people by marshaling facts and logic.  They want to convince people either by confusing them or by appealing to something other than their ability to think and reason.  The old saw about lawyering -- "If the facts are against you, pound the law; if the law is against you, pound the facts; and if both the facts and the law are against you, pound the table." -- gets at this in a different way.  All three bits of advice are variations on Style Debating, because they are a matter of telling someone how to win even when they have a weak case.  The latter approach is the worst, of course, but the idea is that sometimes there is nothing that a Content Debater can say, so it becomes necessary to resort to distortions and misdirection.

Yet the selling point of competitive debate (parliamentary and otherwise) is that it supposedly teaches young people to be able to construct content-based arguments and present them effectively.  That is why debaters are randomly assigned to one side or the other of a question.  The idea is to develop the skill of making the best possible argument for any position, no matter the debater's own views or which side of the question "should" win in some Platonic sense.

So yes, the William Jennings Bryan imitators are Style Debaters, but so are the table pounders and the distractors.  Cruz's stock in trade -- based on what people have said about his Princeton debating days and what we can all see today -- involves a disastrously failed attempt to mimic folksy country lawyers combined with efforts to stoke people's fears and hatreds.
As I noted last week, his default is to "be outraged," hoping that people will not stop and realize that he is saying nonsensical things.  I pointed specifically to his effort to distract people from the possibility of supporting gun control, where he responded to Democrats' weary observation that "thoughts and prayers are not enough" with this weird twist: "I don’t apologize for thoughts or prayers!  And the contempt of Democrats for prayers is an odd sociological thing!"  He merely seized on the emotionally loaded topic of religion and claimed that his opponents have "contempt" for what good Americans hold dear.

This is hardly unique to Cruz (which is part of my point here), and it is actually rather easy to do.  I forget which politician did it, but a few years ago a closeted pol was caught in a same-sex scandal and defended himself by accusing his detractors of being homophobic.  It would even have been possible to do this with the first President Bush's infamous campaign slogan: "Read my lips, no new taxes."  Here is how a not-uniquely-sleazy Style Debater might respond: "Why does George Bush insult the hearing impaired?  Many of my constituents are deaf, including a veteran I met who lost his hearing fighting for our country in Iraq.  We should all be outraged that George Bush is mocking our war heroes!"

And then there is the all-purpose standby: "Why do you hate America?"

Being a Style Debater, then, amounts to adopting a style of non-argument that is specifically designed to make people stop thinking about content.  So even though Cruz's speaking style is in no way notably flowery or pleasing, he is forced to do something to avoid talking about the merits of, say, climate change, tax policy, voter suppression, police violence, or anything else.  Distracting people with nonsense sometimes works.

As an aside, I should address the question of whether Cruz in some sense knows better.  People give him (and similar demagogues like Josh Hawley) far too much credit for being "smart," as supposedly proved by having attended Princeton and Harvard Law (or Stanford and Yale Law, in Hawley's case), and for having clerked on the Supreme Court.  Although I am tempted to say that these guys have to know better, I am not at all convinced that they do.  Professor Dorf recently critiqued an especially embarrassing outburst by a long-serving conservative U.S. Court of Appeals judge, whose comments at the very least demonstrate that one can issue judicial opinions without being able to construct a content-based argument.  And Antonin Scalia repeatedly insisted that the text of the Equal Protection Clause explicitly prohibited race-based distinctions, but he was wrong every time.

My point is that it is possible to succeed even at the highest levels by offering arguments that are notably lacking in content.  I am not saying that Cruz is completely incapable of making content-based arguments, but I am similarly not saying that he is definitely capable of doing so.  He certainly does not bother trying.

As I noted above, this kind of demagoguery is actually a lot more interesting than Trump's more successful version.  Even though I am not willing to presume that Cruz is as smart as his resume suggests, what is notable is that he is one of those right-wing demagogues for whom this is not effortless.  He has seen others lie and distort their way to success, and he tries to use their tactics for his own purposes.  He does enjoy some payoff from those efforts, but he is held back by his apparently immutable and uncanny ability to make everyone hate him.

By contrast, Trump's demagoguery is effortless, mostly because it does not involve anything even as minimally clever as, say, twisting something that is not an attack on religion into an attack on religion.  Trump simply insults and lies with abandon.  For example, he responded to recent criticism from Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx by calling Fauci "the king of 'flip-flops'" (unclear why he used scare quotes) and Birx as "a proven liar with very little credibility left."  Trump also mocks Fauci relentlessly for the weak first pitch that Fauci threw at a Washington Nationals game last year.

There is nothing to analyze there.  Whatever it is that makes Trump lovers love Trump, he taps into it simply by spewing hatred and by maligning anyone who disagrees with him.  Whereas Cruz tries to say, "Ooh, look!  My opponents are sociologically odd prayer haters," Trump says: "They're stupid-heads and losers."  Even if Cruz or the others tried to do that, it would not work.  They are thus left to try to muddle through with distortionary nonsense.  Even Trump Jr., despite his efforts to use his father's insult-based approach -- e.g., "liberalism is a disease" -- cannot pull it off without relying on off-the-shelf Ann Coulter-style slanders.

And this brings us back to the question that inspired this post: What, if anything, can stop a Style Debater like Cruz?  Even Trump's unique approach to non-content debating did not keep him in office, and that style is sui generis.  Cruz is just another garden-variety demagogue, which makes him easier to assess and possibly defeat.  (Again, Cruz's unique loathsomeness makes him beatable for a different reason.)

As I wrote last Friday, Style Debaters do sometimes triumph, with something like one third of the national champions during my era being content-challenged in the extreme.  That is the bad news.  The good news is that even audiences who were not demanding about content tended eventually to see through Style Debaters, because the tactics become tiresome and predictable.  This is not to say that the audiences would turn en masse against the Style debaters, but the atmosphere could become notably less welcoming over the course of a season.

Another way to say this is that Cruz's beatability arises not only from his unique personality flaws but because time is unkind to Style Debaters.  The ones like Cruz, who labor to find demagogic hooks, can be knocked backward when an opponent accurately calls them out on nonsense.  Unlike a Marco Rubio, who robotically repeats his talking points no matter what his opponent says, Cruz-like Style Debaters think that they are clever and can respond effectively after being called out.  They are deluded, however, because it is not possible to defend nonsense with sensible arguments.  They end up flailing.

I am not predicting that Cruz or the others like him will do the political equivalent of a murderer on "Perry Mason," breaking down and confessing on the witness stand.  Even if they have a bad day on a debate stage, they will come back with new demagoguery and try again.  Each time, however, fewer people will be likely to take them seriously.

Is this Pollyannaish?  After all, I am essentially saying that content beats lack of content, that reason prevails.  And the world seems to demonstrate again and again that that is simply not true.  To say that reason does not always prevail, however, is not to say that it never wins.  And although plain-vanilla demagogues like Cruz can have some success, they can be made to fail when confronted with the emptiness of their words.  That is one reason that they try so hard to prevent people from voting: as candidates, Style Debaters do not wear well.
There is, in short, no special strategy for beating demagogues.  Their arguments range from bad to nonexistent, and although opponents who can point that out will never win every vote, they do tend to gain the advantage as time passes.  Cruz might yet become President, but if he does so, it will be because he won the intramural skirmish among other content-free Republicans and then got to the White House by virtue of his party's hijacking of American democracy.  Like Trump, but for very different reasons, he cannot win a free and fair election.