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Demagoguery is nothing new

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Figures with powerful influences and selfish motivations are commonplace in history. With tools of mass communication it’s surprising that modern radical politics isn’t faring better.

By Bertie Nesirky, Journalism Student

A struggling person always wants an easy answer, it is an inescapable part of being human.

Picture a public figure. One who promises to restore, secure, reassure and revitalise while vilifying a group of people or school of thought and asking for minimal effort in return; a Trumpy-Farage-esque figure comes to mind.

Yet flicking through the history books it’s clear that demagoguery has always preyed on this human vulnerability.

The formula for influence is simple; take a platform, create an audience and promise a brighter future. Trump has taken these steps and scaled the premise to levels never seen before.

In the past year we have had columnists declare that Trump has shuffled politics into a new era. Opponents say they have never seen such blind devotion. Critics are announcing he is the first politician in our new ‘post truth’ world.

However, these critics are looking at trump through the narrow perspective of recent history. If we broaden our frame of reference we can see there is nothing unique about his rise to power.

In Ancient Greece, Cleon stood in a square at the centre of Athens, used his lone voice and played on the citizens xenophobia to advocate the genocide of the Mytilene people. If you consider that this one man and his voice was able to rile a city to the brink of murder, bringing Greek democracy briefly to it’s knees, then it is no longer as impressive that we are seeing radical figures gaining a following in today’s world of mass communications.

Trump’s story is one of manipulation, selfishness, blind devotion and the hijacking of mass communications. Yet Trump does not get the title of being the first demagogue to manipulate the masses through the media. Remarkably, over one hundred years ago in a small sixteen room medical clinic in Milford, an isolated town in Kansas, a strikingly similar story was unfolding, manifesting in the form of a doctor with questionable (mal)practices, Thomas Romulus Berkeley.

Brinkley’s is the story of true mass communications and fever for power colliding of the first time in history.

His story is a lesson in respecting the power of people’s desire for a solution.

Thomas Berkeley was a man with a gift for influencing and in 1920, he was lucky to find himself at the precipice in history when radio equipment was becoming commercially available but private radio content was not commonplace. The budding technology of radio was providing the means for mass distribution of ideas, but no one had grasped its potential yet.

Radio was to be Berkeley’s platform and the residents of Kansas were his audience. He abused his title of Doctor (albeit a title bought rather than earned) to run a radio show which advertised his pseudoscience medical practices and his proprietary, mainly coloured water, medicines.

His voice was carried, from from the 1000 Watt radio mast he built, across the state and told all who would listen of his products, he knew if he provided a solution, people would want to believe it.

He gained a mass following, people traveled across the state to try his treatments, the most famous being the implantation of goat testicles to cure impotence, from his practice Brinkley became a wealthy man with immense influence over his county. He built roads, infrastructures, zoos and invigorated the economy, as best put by the county mayor, “we grow fat off of Thomas Berkeley”.

Despite the fact that his treatments must never have helped an ailing individual, the county was steadfastly loyal to the charlatan, to the point upon which they refused to hand him over to the authorities when they came knocking.

Enter the recently founded American Medical Association, appalled at Brinkley disgracing their profession. They wished Brinkley to stand trial for his actions, hundreds of lives are suspected to have been in the wake of his pseudo medicine at this point. The county mayor personally intervened and allowed Brinkley to proceed with his work.

Turning once again to procedure to halt Brinkley’s practices the AMA used their newly granted medical license powers to revoke his license to practice.

This spurred Brinkley’s entrance into world of politics.

He realised that the state Governor could grant medical licenses and elections were barely two months away. Brinkley became a candidate in the 1932 elections for Kansas State Governor. The Kansas political scene did not take his entrance to the race seriously.

They were overlooking the advantage Brinkley had which no politician before him had, a private radio station and a mass, devoted, following. It is here we can see strong parallels between Brinkley and our modern radical political figures who have taken a new form of media, social media, and have made it their mouthpiece and assembly point for followers. Brinkley used his radio to promote his campaign and won the popular vote.

The attorney general of Kansas was unhappy with the prospect of a Brinkley Governor and decreed that only votes with the exact name “T. R. Brinkley” would be counted, spoiling 18,000 votes and Brinkley lost the place Governor by a narrow margin of 3%.

To add insult to injury his license to broadcast was rescinded by the Federal Radio Commission due to his content being primarily advertising. Brinkley Vs FRC is still a key case in broadcasting law.

Thomas Brinkley had been brought to his knees by the law. He was perturbed but clearly not dissuaded from continuing his affluent practice. The next years were a game of cat and mouse between Brinkley and the law.

His broadcast license was revoked, Brinkley made a new broadcast station just across the Mexican border, circumventing the law. This station became the most powerful on the planet, at one million Watts, it could be heard in Canada, he had an audience like no one person had had before.

The Law’s next move was the ‘Brinkley Act’ making it illegal to run radio wires across the border of Mexico and America, thus prevented Brinkley from
recording in his house in America and sending the signal to the transmitter in Mexico. Brinkley simply circumvented this by recording his shows on tapes and carrying them across the border to his station.

In an act of applaudable legal tactics, the AMA released an article personally attacking Brinkley, his practice, his bigamy and the numerous deaths he was linked to, “Modern Medical Charlatans”, in an attempt to incite him into claiming a libel case.

Brinkley returned to a Kansas, to a courthouse where his libel case was to take place. Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel and $250,000 in damages. The court commenced in 1939, 22nd March, before judge R. J. MacMillan.

The defence called upon reams of medical professionals, all whom discredited Brinkley, and unsurprisingly the jury found in favour of the AMA.

Brinkley had been declared a charlatan in a court of law.

By failing a libel case Brinkley’s feet of clay broke open and so did the floodgates, Cases flew out of the woodwork, lawsuits for damages against Brinkley seeking millions for wrongful deaths and malpractice.

Two years later, Brinkley was bankrupt. He died a year later, but not before he was investigated for mail fraud, had his radio station shut down by Mexican authorities and had a leg amputated due to circulation issues. A man who, save for the foresight of a few, could have been a political tyrant, died of a heart attack, penniless.

Thomas R. Brinkley is not a name commonplace in any history book, perhaps this is why our political sphere has drifted so astray. We have forgotten to learn from the mistakes of previous generations and have fallen for them over and over.

Likewise with Cleon of Athens, Lewis Levin, Karl Leuger, Marcus Garvey, Adolf Hitler and more recently Geert Wilders, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Frauke Petry. Some of the many who prey on emotions and prejudice to further their own agenda. A string of names spanning generations of demagoguery.

Brinkley’s story is a lesson, not one of morals, but of a failure to understand the inadequacy of truth as a tool to placate the masses. It is not enough for a politician to run on a platform of manageable renewal, touting a realistic estimate of change. People don’t want the truth, they want a solution and will always turn to those holding it.

A struggling person always wants an easy answer, it is an inescapable part of being human.