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The growing pervasiveness of demagogic rhetoric

Before arriving at UWM, Marnie Lawler McDonough enjoyed a career as a corporate communications and marketing executive in New York. That led to her research interest as a communication doctoral candidate – the rhetoric of organizational leadership, especially speech that’s manipulative, deceptive or violates norms.

While taking a seminar on the rhetoric of debates in 2016, she noticed that the word “demagogue” was experiencing a resurgence in popular media. Although she typically stays away from politics, her interest was piqued, and she began looking at the rhetoric of demagoguery.

“It hadn’t been written about in the scholarship for a while,” says Lawler McDonough, whose doctoral advisor is Kathryn Olson, a professor of communication.

Marnie Lawler McDonough worked in corporate communications and marketing before enrolling in graduate school to study the rhetoric of organizational leadership. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

Lawler McDonough examined transcripts of the three presidential debates held that year and determined that rhetoric fitting the historical definition of demagogues was used consistently, but with contemporary nuances.

It works like this. Leaders posture as common people. They choose words to trigger waves of powerful emotion, manipulating this emotion for personal benefit and threatening or breaking established principles of governance. Modern platforms like social media then help deliver this to a wider audience.

Lawler McDonough says the demagogic approach isn’t limited to politics and is being used in other areas of society. “It has applications in the rhetoric of anyone in power,” she says. “For example, how leaders communicate with their employees or how famous people have responded to accusations of sexual harassment.”

Broad swaths of the American public have accepted this deviation from typical leadership rhetoric. She believes it’s important to understand why, and says that those studying political rhetoric and demagoguery should chart new courses in examining such developments. That includes exploring the role social media plays in amplifying norm-busting speech.

“Rhetorical scholars should work to gain a better recognition and understanding of demagogic rhetoric,” Lawler McDonough says, “especially because it’s becoming even more pervasive as its usage evolves in the 21st century.”