—Muses of the Demagogue—
A crowd of Austrians cheer wildly during a Hitler campaign rally in Schwarzach, Austria sometime prior to the Anschluss, dated 1938. (PC: Hugo Jaeger / LIFE)
It has always boggled my mind how demagogues have so often gained power throughout the ranges of history. From Caligula to Pol Pot, the human race has allowed many bad apples to gain power unchecked. But what allows greedy or deranged people to become dictators?
When one looks at history’s most hated demagogues, one usually finds a man who built his psychological base by speaking passionately about his proposals, usually when his country is going through a difficult time or crisis. With this passion, the masses follow under the assumption that he is strong and trustworthy to make the nation better. The dictator most commonly assumes power not from logic, but from oration. When he yells for his nation, his listener hears. The listener’s heart beats faster with every sentence and the adrenaline begins to race as the words grow louder. Chemicals begin to dance through the listener’s brain, mistaking the orator’s greed for passion. Some in the crowd may catch the greed, but often pay no mind, as emotion beats logic every day of the week just as scissors beat paper. When passion strikes the listener’s emotions, the competition is over. The listener is won by the orator; the aspiring dictator. The listener is so commonly the masses, and the masses so commonly the listener. It takes one with passion to rise and manipulate all who choose to listen with their chemicals instead of listen with their thoughts. Those who listen with their thoughts are immediately the dictator’s enemy, those who are logical. These are the listeners who must be extirpated without question, the domestic enemies of the regime. Those who listen with their chemicals are the dictator’s mental slaves, as they do not think twice of their leader’s passion. They had been won the moment they heard him speak. This is pathos, the appeal to emotions. It is how we have arrived at our Hitlers, our Mussolinis, our Diems, our Maos. The power of the word, however mindless it may be, will always defeat logic.