The Demagogue in Politics

I watched Citizen Kane for the nth time last night. It’s really so good! On this viewing, besides an array of little things (how the opening and closing shots match up, the underfed-looking elephant in the newsreel sequence, the pterodactyls behind the picnic), I was particularly struck by how “German Expressionistic” the whole thing looks. Lots of shadows and spotlights; lots of gigantic rooms; lots of weird camera angles that make Kane look huge and everyone around him small, or vice versa. I didn’t quite come up with the word “Expressionistic” on my own — that’s Pauline Kael in her 1971 essay Raising Kane, which I found serendipitously in the process of googling which U.S. President was supposed to be Kane’s first wife’s “Uncle John.” (Hint: this President was a Congregationalist.)

Apparently the received wisdom these days is that Kael plagiarized all her research and was offensively unfair to Welles’ legitimate genius; but hey, I thought it was an illuminating piece of writing, regardless.

William Randolph Hearst, unlike Charles Foster Kane, was elected to office — two back-to-back terms (1903–1907) in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1906, he — like Kane — ran for, and lost, the governorship of New York State. Here is an abridgement of a speech given by John F. O’Brien contra Hearst’s cause. Dateline 1906:

A demagogue is one who for selfish ends seeks to curry favor with the people or some particular portion of them, by pandering to their prejudices or wishes or by playing on their ignorance or passions.

We are witnessing in the state of New York one of those tests of popular government which often have come in the past and always will come when a skillful demagogue attempts to get elected to office by exceeding all other men in the denunciation of real evils and in promises to cure them. Honest and well-meaning voters, smarting under the effects of political or social or business wrongdoing, naturally tend to sympathize with the man who expresses their feelings in the most forcible and extreme language, and who promises the most sweeping measures of reform; and in the excitement and heat of public indignation they are sometimes in danger of forgetting that he who cries “stop thief” the loudest may be merely seeking his own advantage, may be worthless as a leader, may belong to the criminal class himself.

The enemies of popular government have always asserted that the great mass of a people, and particularly the working people, could not be trusted to reject appeals to passion and prejudice and follow the dictates of sober reason, to distinguish between mere words of violent denunciation and extravagant promise on the one hand, and proved capacity for useful and faithful service on the other, and that their suffrage would always go to the most violent and extreme agitator.

The believers in popular government have always answered that in a country where universal education goes with universal suffrage, the great mass of the people, and particularly those who are doing honest work, can be depended upon to inform themselves carefully and to think soberly and clearly about political questions, and that their plain, strong, common sense will surely detect and reject the self-seeking demagogue, however violent his denunciation of wrong and however glowing his promises of redress, and approve the genuine man, the competent man, even though he may not promise so much or puff himself so much or use such violent language.

I firmly believe that the contention of the friends of popular government is right; I believe that the people of this country and of this state, under our system of universal suffrage and universal education, are sure to come out right in the long run. Nevertheless it cannot be doubted that many workingmen in this state, good and honest men who are entitled to respect and who wish to do the best thing possible for their country, are about to strengthen the enemies and weaken the friends of popular government all over the world by voting for Mr. Hearst, who is just the kind of a demagogue that I have described.

He is indeed an especially dangerous specimen of the class, because he is enormously rich and owns newspapers of wide circulation, and he can hire many able and active men to speak well of him and praise him in print and in speech and in private conversation.

Not only is the cause of popular government in danger of suffering injury and discredit from the vote for Mr. Hearst, but genuine reform, the real practical redress of the evils complained of by the people, is in danger of being weakened and brought to naught by this attempt of Mr. Hearst to get himself elected governor of New York.

The evils which have come with the enormous increase of corporate wealth in recent years are real and serious; there have been many outrageous practices which ought to be stopped and many wrongdoers who ought to be punished. That should be done, not by lynch law but by the intelligent and wise action which befits a self-governing people, determined always to maintain the rule of law, by reforming the laws where they are defective, and enforcing the laws with fearless vigor against rich and poor alike, and for the protection of rich and poor alike.

Both of these require a high degree of intelligence, skill, and experience; declamation and denunciation and big headlines in the newspapers will not do the business. It is easy to cry “down with the corporations,” but corporations are merely the forms through which the greater part of our enormous business is transacted; they are not formed by special privileges to a few; they are free to all; anybody can form a corporation by signing and filing a paper, just as anybody can form a partnership.

And the great mass of our business people, especially those engaged in manufacture, are doing their business through corporate form; our enormous manufacturing industry could not be carried on in any other way. If you destroy corporations, you close your mills and your furnaces, you stop the payment of wages, you destroy the purchasing power of the wage-workers, you reduce the sales of our merchants and the markets for farm products. Corporations are not bad in themselves, but the managers of some of them and of many of the greatest ones have used them as opportunities for wrongdoing, if not criminal wrongdoing.

The thing needed is to cut out the wrongdoing and save the business, and these corporations are of so many different kinds, engaged in so many kinds of varied and complicated business, so intimately connected with all the production and trade and prosperity of the country, that the same kind of patient, experienced, and discriminating skill is needed for the process that the surgeon needs in cutting out a tumor from the human body and saving the life of the patient.


The structure of our prosperity will not be weakened, it will be made strong and enduring by removing with the care of the experienced builder the rotten timbers of disobedience to law and disregard of morality.

The Republican Congress has stood loyally by the President; the act creating the Bureau of Corporations, the act expediting the trial of trust cases, the anti-rebate act, the act for the regulation of railroad rates, have made possible redress which was impossible before. Under the direction of two successive attorneys-general of the first order of ability, sincerity, and devotion, in hundreds of courts, incessant warfare has been waged and is being waged under the Federal laws against corporate wrongdoers.


The salt combination has been indicted and convicted and fined for failing to obey the judgment of dissolution. The Beef Trust has been indicted for failing to obey the injunction against it, and has been saved so far only by a decision that it had secured temporary immunity by giving evidence against itself. One branch of the Tobacco Trust is facing an indictment of its corporations and their officers in the Federal court in New York, and the other branches are undergoing investigation. The lumber combination in Oklahoma is under indictment.


It is seldom indeed that a man so young, whose public career has been so brief, so small a portion of whose life is known at all to the public, has furnished such convincing proofs of his unfitness for office. But the worst of Mr. Hearst is that with his great wealth, with his great newspapers, with his army of paid agents for his own selfish purposes, he has been day by day and year by year sowing the seeds of dissension and strife and hatred throughout our land; he would array labor against capital and capital against labor; poverty against wealth and wealth against poverty, with bitter and vindictive feeling; he would destroy among the great mass of our people that kindly and friendly spirit, that consideration for the interests and the rights of others, that brotherhood of citizenship which are essential to the peaceful conduct of free popular government; he would destroy that respect for law, that love of order, that confidence in our free institutions which are the basis at once of true freedom and true justice.

The malignant falsehoods of these journals, read by the immigrant in his new home where none can answer them, are making him hate the people who have welcomed him to liberty and prosperity, to abundant employment, to ample wages, to education for his children, to independence for his manhood, such as he has never known before.

It is not the calm and lawful redress of wrongs which he seeks, it is the turmoil of inflamed passions and the terrorism of revengeful force; he spreads the spirit, he follows the methods and he is guided by the selfish motives of the revolutionist; and he would plunge our peaceful land into the turmoil and discord of perpetual conflict, out of which the republics of South America are now happily passing.

Does any one question the justice of these statements? Then let him turn to the pages of the newspapers through the ownership of which Mr. Hearst is pressing his political fortunes. What public servant honored by the people’s trust has he not assailed with vile and vulgar epithets; what branch of our free government has he not taught his readers to believe a corrupt agency of oppression!

Listen to this from the Journal:

It is the sad duty of the Journal to announce to the people of the United States that their President, William McKinley, has deliberately tricked Congress and the country . . . McKinley and the Wall Street Cabinet are ready to surrender every particle of national honor and dignity. Congress and the people of the United States have been fooled, tricked and deceived from the beginning to the end.

And to this:

The Board of Elections has already begun its disgraceful and discreditable work. It has allowed the People’s petitions intrusted to its care to be marked and mutilated and destroyed. It has thrown out petitions by the score and its action has been sustained by the courts, even as the courts last year decided that you, as citizens, had no right to have your votes honestly counted, but must abide by any returns, no matter how false, of corrupt election officials.

And to this:

The effort is being made now by the criminal trusts to crush out the power of the people in the American Government. These trusts control your parties, control your primaries, control your public officers, and deny you the right to any government that will express the popular will. You are deserted and betrayed by the public oficers that should sustain you, and by the so-called free press that should support you.

Joseph H. Choate, the leader of the American bar, whose honored and distinguished career is known the world over, who has been the pride of all true Americans, is stigmatized as a “servile lickspittle of corporations.”

Fulton Cutting, ideal citizen, leader in philanthropy and independent politics, as a “worthless poodle.”

Edward M. Shepard, the foremost advocate of civic virtue in the Democratic politics of New York City, as a “corporation lawyer.”

William T. Jerome, the Democrat of independence above all others, as a “political Croton bug.”


Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States, is called “a loose-tongued demagogue,” “a woman killer,” “a flagrant tax dodger,” “a player to the colored gallery,” “a man with the caste feeling,” one who “has sold himself to the devil and will live up to the bargain.”

Once only has this method of incendiary abuse wrought out its natural consequence — in the murder of President McKinley. For years, by vile epithet and viler cartoons, the readers of the Journal were taught to believe that McKinley was a monster in human form, whose taking-off would be a service to mankind. Let me quote some of these teachings:

McKinley condones the treacherous murder of our sailors at Havana and talks of his confidence in the honor of Spain. He plays the coward and shivers white-faced at the footfall of approaching war. He makes an international cur of his country. He is an abject, weak, futile, incompetent poltroon.

McKinley — bar one girthy Princeton person, who came to be no more or less than a living, breathing crime in breeches — is therefore the most despised and hated creature in the hemisphere; his name is hooted; his figure is burned in effigy.

The bullet that pierced Goebel’s chest
Cannot be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.

And this in April 1901:

Institutions, like men, will last until they die; and if bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.

And this in June 1901:

There has been much assassination in the world, from the assassination of some old rulers who needed assassination to the assassination of men in England who, driven to steal by hunger, were caught and hanged most legally. . . .

Is there any doubt that the assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday changed history to some extent? What proof is there that France would have settled down into imperial Napoleonism and prosperity if Marat, the wonderful eye doctor, had been allowed to live to retain his absolute mastery of the Paris populace? . . .

If Cromwell had not resolved to remove the head of Charles I from his lace collar, would England be what she is today — a really free nation and a genuine republic?

Did not the murder of Lincoln, uniting in sympathy and regret all good people in the North and South, hasten the era of American good feeling and perhaps prevent the renewal of fighting between brothers?

The murder of Caesar certainly changed the history of Europe, besides preventing that great man from ultimately displaying vanity as great as his ability.

When wise old sayings, such as that of Disraeli about assassination, are taken up it is worth while, instead of swallowing them whole, to analyze them. We invite our readers to think over this question. The time devoted to it will not be wasted.

What wonder that the weak and excitable brain of Czolgosz answered to such impulses as these! He never knew McKinley; he had no real or fancied wrongs of his own to avenge against McKinley or McKinley’s government; he was answering to the lesson he had learned, that it was a service to mankind to rid the earth of a monster; and the foremost of the teachers of these lessons to him and his kind was and is William Randolph Hearst with his yellow journals.


The immediate and necessary effect of Mr. Hearst’s election would be to deprive the President of the moral support of the state of New York; it would be to strengthen the President’s enemies and opponents and to weaken and embarrass him in the pursuit of his policy.

The election of this violent extremist would inevitably lead to a reaction against all true reform and genuine redress of grievances. There is no enemy of true reform so fatal as sham reform; there is no enemy of the sincere and faithful public servant who is seeking by patient and well directed effort to frame and to enforce just laws, like the selfish agitator who is seeking his own advancement; there is no ally of unscrupulous wealth so potent as the violent extremist who drives good, honest, and conservative men away from the cause of true reform by the violence of his words and the intemperance of his excessive proposals.

I beg the workingmen of New York who may hear or read my words to think upon these questions. Do you believe in President Roosevelt? Do you agree with his policy in pursuing and preventing corporate wrongdoing? Do you wish that he may be able to continue that policy with power and success? If you do, then help him by your votes.

I say to you, with his authority, that he greatly desires the election of a Republican House of Representatives to work with him in the next Congress; I say to you, with his authority, that he greatly desires the election of Mr. Hughes as governor of the state of New York; I say to you, with his authority, that he regards Mr. Hearst as wholly unfit to be governor, as an insincere, self-seeking demagogue, who is trying to deceive the workingmen of New York by false statements and false promises; and I say to you, with his authority, that he considers that Mr. Hearst’s election would be an injury and a discredit alike to honest labor and to honest capital, and a serious injury to the work in which he is engaged of enforcing just and equal laws against corporate wrongdoing.

President Roosevelt and Mr. Hearst stand as far as the poles asunder. Listen to what President Roosevelt himself has said of Mr. Hearst and his kind. In President Roosevelt’s first message to Congress, in speaking of the assassin of McKinley, he spoke of him as inflamed “by the reckless utterances of those who, on the stump and in the public press, appeal to the dark and evil spirits of malice and greed, envy and sullen hatred. The wind is sowed by the men who preach such doctrines, and they cannot escape their share of responsibility for the whirlwind that is reaped. This applies alike to the deliberate demagogue, to the exploiter of sensationalism, and to the crude and foolish visionary who, for whatever reason, apologizes for crime or excites aimless discontent.”

I, say by the President’s authority, that in penning these words, with the horror of President McKinley’s murder fresh before him, he had Mr. Hearst specifically in his mind.

And I say, by his authority, that what he thought of Mr. Hearst then he thinks of Mr. Hearst now.

Posted 2018-04-03