Dress Rehearsal for the Revolution

George Whitefield delivering a sermon in England; painting by John Collet, 1700s
Bridgeman Images
George Whitefield delivering a sermon in England; painting by John Collet, 1700s

“The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people,” James Fenimore Cooper wrote in The American Democrat, an 1838 political pamphlet long dismissed as a screed. But it’s relevant today for pretty obvious reasons. The word “demagogue” falls easily from the lips of politicians, pundits, and historians, often to provide Donald Trump’s harangues with a usable American and mainly masculine past—and perhaps to palliate the alarm with which we hear them. He’s no outlier, it’s suggested, and besides we’ve survived the other demagogues with whom he’s compared: Andrew Jackson (a comparison Trump relishes), Andrew Johnson, George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy, and even William Jennings Bryan, who might be considered far more of a populist than a demagogue.* (The Populists sprang up in the Midwest and South during the 1880s and 1890s to protest economic inequality, corporations, and “the money power.” Bryan ran for president on both the Democratic and the Populist tickets in 1896, though such distinctions—populist, demagogue, populist demagogue—often get lost in the current political climate.)

Unsurprisingly, then, J.D. Dickey’s American Demagogue: The Great Awakening and the Rise and Fall of Populism invokes both demagoguery and populism in its title and spends a good part of its introduction on Trump: his rallies and rants, his attacks on minorities and critics, his infantile slogans and invective, his condemnation of “elites,” his conspiracy theories. “To his opponents,” Dickey writes, “Trump is such an ideal example of a demagogue that it stands as a wonder he does not read or study history, since so much of what makes him typical of demagoguery has appeared again and again in the annals of American life.”

Demagogues were “present in American public life even before there was an America,” Dickey observes, referring to his main subject, the evangelical ministers, particularly the Englishman George Whitefield, who crisscrossed America and helped spawn the religious revivals known as the Great Awakening that spread throughout Britain and America in the mid-eighteenth century. Trump then vanishes from Dickey’s pages, not to surface again until his fleeting appearance in the postscript, for Dickey’s subject isn’t really Trump or demagoguery per se. Rather, he tells us in graceful prose how eighteenth-century American evangelists held their audiences spellbound with invective, histrionics, bellicosity, and divisiveness—the same techniques employed by one demagogue after another.

The frightening specter of demagoguery notwithstanding, Dickey can be quite sympathetic to these evangelists. For while Whitefield could easily be identified as a demagogue, Dickey prefers to hedge a bit, admiring, it seems, Whitefield’s persistence and even at times his methods. For one thing, he was an adroit marketer: “What an angry tweet is to the 21st century,…

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