Donald Trump, demagoguery and attractive illusions

Through fiery rhetoric or utopian promises, politicians since ancient times have manipulated citizens into backing them.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump [AP]
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump [AP]

Donald Trump has won the Indiana primary, and is on his way to become Republican candidate for the White House. He was first ridiculed, then slowly reality began to sink in, and we are, tragically, getting used to the idea that he will be the candidate. Americans are locked into their electoral system despite the potentially disastrous choices for their country.

But how did we get here? Is it because more traditional politicians are corrupt and distrusted and that the system is rigged in favour of oligarchs and elites? Is it simply that disproportionate global economic inequality, where money moves to enrich the rich without limit, is destroying social contracts?

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Or is something else going on? Is there an unsuspected process that explains Trump’s rise?

Behind it all may lay a mechanism that affects us all and explains how we are all influenced as individuals.

Fiery rhetoric

Whether through fiery rhetoric or utopian promises, politicians since ancient times have manipulated citizens into supporting them. It continues throughout the world today.

Demagoguery and attractive illusions fool people regularly. But what is it about us that make populations so vulnerable?

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Some answers undoubtedly lie in how our minds work. At the core of our being is dreaming, which we do in the REM state – the theatre of the imagination that is easily entranced. It is our REM state that salesmen, preachers and demagogues hijack.

This is how politicians influence us: they use plastic words, nominalisations such as 'justice', 'danger', 'freedom', 'change' or 'peace'.


This is how politicians influence us: they use plastic words, nominalisations such as “justice”, “danger”, “freedom”, “change” or “peace”.

Such words are abstractions, and, because they are not describing something specific and concrete, our brains are forced to go on an inner search to find a pattern-match to what they mean to us individually – to enter the REM state. When the brain finds a pattern-match it “tags” it with emotion, and therein lies the problem.

A crowd can be whipped up with such powerful words. Trump’s promise slogan, “Make America great again”, has that effect, as, in fact, did Obama’s slogan about change.

The words “great” and “change” raise emotions despite meaning different things to everyone who hears them. No two people’s wants are the same.

We become mentally consumed, figuring out what that slogan means to us personally. Once we are in that trance-like condition, a politician can manipulate us into following his script, for we are no longer questioning; we are dependent and obeying.

Larger context

Furthermore, once fixated we can no longer see larger contexts, and without a larger context we easily become less empathetic. “Them and us” thinking can easily be induced, and we become dangerously ready to make enemies. Trump’s early targeting of Muslim and Hispanic populations is testament to this dark art.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump [AP]
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump [AP]

Since time immemorial, politicians have used this “abstract language” trick. Indeed, this process may be necessary when talking to masses to get a simple message across and maintain group coherence, but it comes at a cost: citizens stop thinking and become easier to manipulate.

Donald Trump may be unaware he is doing this, although his career as a reality TV show host and businessman probably taught him the power of drama, shouting, ordering people around, and making bold statements that stun people into submission or dependency.

In confusing times of trouble, we are automatically inclined to look for simple solutions to our unease – they have an undeniable appeal everywhere: under Erdogan in Turkey, under Putin in Russia, and under whoever in the USA.

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We are all prone to this; no one can avoid it, but we can mitigate it.


Who is responsible for this mess? Of course, a leader with an out-of-control ego is problem number one. But the onus really lies with each citizen.

Politicians will always divert the emotions of the population to their own ends. Citizens have to develop themselves internally, become more independent and human, in order to prevent this happening.

As in the case of health and hygiene, when people gain knowledge of what is harmful, they have a better chance to avoid it – citizens have to learn to raise their intelligence.

High emotion

As difficult as it is, awareness of being stunned by high emotion, positive or negative abstractions, and fixations on “them and us” thinking, exciting and exhilarating as this may all be, is crucial to avoid making pernicious or stupid political decisions.

Some will say this is not possible, that politics will always involve manipulation by these methods. Indeed, many reading this will just let it slide, and continue repeating the performance of the unintelligent, caught up in a leader’s soaring rhetoric that provides formulaic answers that make life simple.

This is the way Trumps rise, and it happens at all parts of the political spectrum, left, right and centre, including when well-meaning individuals, in developed democracies, make promises that they cannot possibly keep.

The profound disappointment caused when a politician does not deliver what you had imagined he or she would, undermines trust and confidence in the political system. But, once they are in power, it is too late to avert the unforeseen disasters that follow.

Can the politics of excitement, grandiosity and manipulation go the way of the dodo? That is unlikely any time soon but developing a general awareness that our mental mechanics make us prone to manipulation may take us in to an era beyond the Trumps, and into a more independent and intelligent politics.

A more coherent and sober reality may then show itself, where our politics move away from the land of illusion and conflict and come to serve more as a practical platform for what human beings actually need.

John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat and served as political adviser to the personal representative of the UN secretary general for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

Ivan Tyrrell is an author, director of Human Givens College and editorial director of Human Givens journal.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.