Ridicule especially antagonizes the demagogue. It deflates the pretentious and the powerful. It reduces to human size those puffed up by their self-importance. It exposes them for who they are. It affirms the self-respect and dignity of the oppressed. Demagogues, lacking the capacity for self-transcendence, cannot see the ludicrousness and absurdity of their pretensions. They cannot distinguish between their inner fantasies and reality. They can belittle and ridicule others, as Trump does, with great cruelty, but they see nothing humorous about similar treatment directed at the self-created edifice of their own glory.
Alexander Hamilton was the first great theorist of the American executive. He believed that a vigorous president was necessary for the flourishing of the republic, that the president had to possess core virtues (a strong sense of justice, commitment to the national interest, prudence, courage), and that it was essential to create a selection process to weed out demagogues who would manipulate public fears, vanities, and prejudices to acquire and maintain power.
This “soul” was “lost” very soon after the Founding itself. Washington was a perfect embodiment of the Hamiltonian presidency . . . but Thomas Jefferson’s misguided faith in popular sovereignty led to an ineluctable process of presidential democratization. With this came all sorts of problems endemic to majoritarian tyranny: prejudice toward ethnic and racial minorities, undermining of the rule of law, and the proliferation of political corruption. The first truly demagogic president in Knott’s view was Andrew Jackson, and the “lowlights” of presidential governance include Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and above all Donald Trump, the “apotheosis of the popular presidency.”