Trend Watch

Demagogue

The word means "a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power”


Lookups for demagogue increased 9000% over the hourly average after Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous scientists in the world, stated that he was unable to explain Trump's success in the Republican presidential primaries:

I can’t. He is a demagogue, who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

The word trended again on July 27th, after Obama used it during his speech at the Democratic National Convention: "...anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end," and yet again on September 19, when Hillary Clinton described Trump's response to the bombing in New York City as "demagogic."

leviathan-front

Abraham Bosse's frontispiece to the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Published in 1651, the book argues for an absolute monarch and a system in which people trade liberty for safety.

Demagogue means “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.” It comes from the Greek word meaning “popular leader” and originally had the positive connotation of “a leader in ancient times who championed the cause of the common people.” The first known use of the word in English comes from the introduction to Thomas Hobbes's 1629 translation of a text by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides:

It need not be doubted, but from such a Master, Thucydides was sufficiently qualified, to have become a great Demagogue, and of great authority with the People.

Hobbes wrote Leviathan a few years later in 1651, in which he argued for the merits of absolute political power held by a monarch and against the separation of church and state. Demagogue took on the negative meaning of “a leader who seeks to gain power by exploiting popular prejudices and making false or extravagant claims and promises” very soon after it was introduced in English in the mid-1600s.

This isn’t the first time that the word demagogue has been used in reference to Donald Trump. Last summer, both Lindsay Graham and Rick Perry used the related word demagoguery to refer to Trump’s ideas.

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