When we moderns hear the word typhoon, we do not think of the Greek mythological figure who has lent his name to the phenomenon. The metaphor, however, helps characterize demagogy and reveals something the Greeks only hinted at, the near vacuum at the center of such phenomena. Typhoons and many other extreme weather events suck into themselves whatever they encounter, grind it up, then spew out a trail of destruction. That is how demagogy works and is one major difference between it and populism.
At the core of demagogy is a vacuum. That is not usually the case with populism, since populist leaders typically have firm commitments to specific policies. They stand for something. It can be asked whether what they propose seems wise or otherwise. Of the demagogue, however, a more fundamental question needs to be asked: whether there is any inner coherence at all, for a demagogue can blow hot and cold, this way and that, adopt phrases or policies from one source one day and repudiate them the next. There may be nothing at the core except a vacuum that sucks into itself clichés, slogans, facts, factoids and fabrications, fragments of ideologies, policies developed by others, sometimes those others themselves—whoever and whatever might help him gain power at any given moment. Then, at his whim, he disgorges it all. The political vacuum at the core of demagogy, moreover, may correspond to, and perhaps derives from, a moral vacuum, the absence of concern for anything other than the self.
It is sufficient for the demagogue to move from one issue to the next, without any long-term vision, provided each individual episode fires up his followers. Cleon, for example, seems not to have needed consistent policies to dominate the Athenian electorate. Instead, the ancient sources emphasize his disruptive discourse and inexhaustible supply of venom and vitriol. He appears not as a man with a policy, but as someone with visceral appeal and a powerful mode of self-presentation.
Demagogues, unlike populist leaders, do not have to stand on a well-crafted platform or espouse a consistent program. Their strength comes from their skill at expressing and manipulating emotions. Demagogy, then, can be at home on either the left or the right of the political spectrum, or it can oscillate between these poles. Such oscillation is one way to distinguish a demagogue from a populist and, when it occurs, is especially revealing about how demagogy works. A demagogue can feel right at home with inconsistency, since his goal is power and his means of attaining it is the manipulation of the fears and passions of his followers. These followers may not be troubled if he swings from one position to another, not even if his policies turn out to run counter to their interests, for they are attracted to him not by a belief in the efficacy of his policies but by the emotional satisfaction they experience in his presence. His source of power is a not-to-be-underestimated skill at expressing and manipulating emotions. Demagogy, then, can be at home on either the left or the right of the political spectrum, or it can oscillate between these poles.