A demagogue is someone who appeals to people's sense of victimization or to their simple prejudices in order to motivate them with feelings of anger, outrage or spite. In ancient Greece (the source of the word: demos, people, and agogos, leading), entrenched aristocracies were frequently overthrown by demagogues, the sense of the word at that time being "organizers of the common people." Greek conventional wisdom, however, took a negative view of this progression, as typically demogogues emerged as tyrants, meaning rulers who were governed by no law other than their own beliefs and desires.
Today the word demagogue means someone who capitalizes on the resentments or passions of some group of people, usually including the sense that the demagogue is exaggerating or misstating the facts, in order to use the target group as a means to power. Eva Peron, who represented herself as a common Argentine woman as opposed to the local Latin oligarchy, is one modern example of a demagogue. The most striking example of demagoguery in the 20th century was Hitler's use of the Jews, who he portrayed as sinister manipulators and not "authentic" or "pure" Germans, to focus and thus control and direct anger and violence that had in fact built up as a result of German defeats in World War I. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez are contemporary examples of demagogues: they are able to blame the United States for the sufferings of their own people and as an external threat that necessitates authoritarian rule.
Sarah Palin is a demagogue. Her rhetoric is strikingly consistent: she is a common person from humble origins (a victimized woman who may help herself to feminist rhetoric when convenient), motivated by a higher law than secular laws (Christianity), and angry and indignant about elite and less purely American forces that are active in sinister plans to deprive the volk of their political autonomy.
I don't think that Palin will ever again be on a national political ticket because I just don't think she's got the right stuff, and so I wasn't much interested in discussing her further, but the other night I saw on TV an extraordinary scene of protesters in front of David Letterman's studio in New York and I felt compelled to take a couple of minutes to spell this out. These people were whipped up into a frenzy. The history of demagogic success is full of tales of broad swathes of national populations who thought "it can't happen here." Sarah Palin understands as well as everyone else that Letterman was not referring to her fourteen-year-old daughter (I'm not going to bother with the ritual "His joke was tasteless but..." caveats). Without any doubt she despises feminists (by the way) behind closed doors as part of the Godless liberal left. She has no compunction about using her children and her family as chessmen in her rhetorical machinations. She saw an opportunity to demagogue an issue and she took it.
She traffics in anger, resentment, innuendo, exaggeration, provocation and distortion. She presided over political rallies where members of the crowd called the Democratic candidate a traitor, a terrorist, a communist, a Muslim, an Arab, a monkey and a nigger, routinely calling for his murder well within her earshot, and only took steps to clean up the perceptions of these rallies when it became politically necessary (in fact she scarcely bothered: it was McCain who took conspicuous steps to clean things up). She is a vicious, dangerous person. That is a plain fact.