Now Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, centers his analysis on demagogues. In his new book, “The Demagogue’s Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy From the Founders to Trump,” Posner takes us through the dangers of the charismatic, amoral, institution-destroying firebrands of American history to help us understand the specific threat that President Trump poses to the republic. His conclusion: Trump’s threat is a dire one.
In Posner’s telling, demagogues have always been “crude, vulgar, and violent,” gathering popular support “through dishonesty, emotional manipulation, and the exploitation of social divisions.” In populist fashion, they blame political elites “for everything that has gone wrong” and try “to destroy institutions — legal, political, religious, social — and other sources of power that stand in their way.” Once in power, they seek to interfere in elections, undermine constraints on their activities and create division within the population to serve their “ultimate goal . . . personal power and glory.”
Posner reminds readers that when the founders were creating our constitutional order, they feared that the very nature of democracy might destroy their experiment in self-government. A charlatan seeking absolute power might lead the common people — ill-informed and easily manipulated — to achieve his goals. “There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide,” John Adams said. Alexander Hamilton feared politicians “paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing [as] demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
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