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Demagoguery in America

Changes in our political system and our political culture left us vulnerable to Trump’s demagoguery.
August 30, 2020
Demagoguery in America

The Demagogue’s Playbook
The Battle for American Democracy
from the Founders to Trump
by Eric A. Posner
St. Martin’s, 310 pp., $28.99

Eric Posner is a practicing attorney, a professor at an elite law school, and now, with the publication of his latest book, The Demagogue’s Playbook, he adds ‘authority on demagoguery’ to his already considerable CV. To be sure, that last distinction may well have been achieved by all of us in the era of Trump, as we have lived through the demagoguery of the worst president in American history, but unlike most of us, Posner has decided to enhance his expertise on the topic of demagoguery by writing a book tracing demagogic impulses throughout American history. His work helps us understand how we got to the sorry place we inhabit, and where we can go from here.

The purpose of The Demagogue’s Playbook, Posner writes, is

to ask whether the “demagogue” is a meaningful political category, rather than simply a term we assign to politicians we don’t like. . . . My conclusion is that it is—the ancients got it right. It is a style of political action that—independent of the demagogue’s agenda—poses a threat to democracy and effective government. If the American president is a demagogue, the country faces a constitutional problem, well beyond the ordinary turmoil of acceptable politics.

The essential meaning of the term demagogue has, Posner says, not changed much across the centuries:

It refers to a charismatic, amoral person who obtains the support of the people through dishonesty, emotional manipulation, and the exploitation of social divisions; who targets the political elites, blaming them for everything that has gone wrong; and who tries to destroy institutions—legal, political, religious, social—and other sources of power that stand in their way.

Posner sketches out the tensions between demagoguery and enlightened leadership, between elitism and populism. The American Founders sought to establish a government that featured elements of both popular and elite rule. They “did not invent democracy, or even create a democracy,” he writes. “Their accomplishment was to create a lasting system of government that combined elements of democracy and elite rule. The elites would govern, but ordinary people would retain a residual power to check them if they ruled badly.” Studying examples of historical regimes, the Founders—or at least some of them; Posner here overgeneralizes—“believed that Rome collapsed not (as so often argued at the time) because the Romans had ceased being virtuous but because the Roman constitution had become unbalanced, giving too much power to ordinary people, who were vulnerable to the wiles of demagogues.”

The trick was to give ordinary people political power (‘self-government’) but ensure that they chose elites to rule them. Various institutions were put into place to ensure that the government could not be taken over by rabble-rousers or used in ways that advanced narrow political interests at the expense of the long-term good of the public.

Andrew Jackson, the earliest American demagogue Posner identifies, “was able to win the presidency because by his time the original constitutional bulwarks against populist demagogues had eroded.” Under Jackson, “the new populist ideology could justify destruction of the institutions, not just reform, including institutions that constrain, or lie outside the power of, the executive. Only the president himself was powerful enough to lead this assault.” In short, the new ideology justified “a leader who derives his power from the people rather than from a set of political institutions, a demagogue.”

Nearly a century after Jackson’s day, democratic and popular impulses began to give way to something very like their opposite—a technocracy:

As early as the 1920s, Progressive intellectuals like Walter Lippmann (in his 1922 book Public Opinion) were arguing that the masses must accommodate themselves to rule by experts. Lippmann, whose views reflected a new skepticism about democracy in intellectual circles, was simply updating the Founders’ view for the age of technology: the elite—now consisting of social scientists, area experts, and professional politicians—must rule because the masses cannot.

Notwithstanding the creation of a technocracy—and the administrative bureaucracy that preceded, grew with, and enabled it—Posner tells us that populist demagogic impulses returned with a vengeance with the arrival on the scene of Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, to whom the press “flocked” because he was (here Posner borrows from historian David Oshinsky) “bizarre, unpredictable, entertaining, and always newsworthy.” Despite the fact that McCarthy was ultimately repudiated by his Senate colleagues, the demagogic strain remained, and found at least some resonance in the public career of Alabama governor George Wallace and the presidential candidacies and presidency of Richard Nixon.

Demagoguery in America reached its full flowering in the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump. Posner traces Trump’s shocking success in 2016 directly to the fact that “he was a demagogue” at a moment when the conditions were right. His election was made possible by “the erosion of the bulwarks against demagoguery, first put into place by the Founders and further developed by generations of American leaders. The decline of the Electoral College, the extension of the franchise, the erosion of control by party leadership—all these institutional developments created the conditions in which a demagogue could prevail by appealing to the worst instincts of the people.”

But, Posner says, it wasn’t just political structures that made possible the rise of Trump; as any sentient observer knows, our political culture, transformed by new tools of communication, contributed, too:

Trump both benefited from the greater level of political partisanship exhibited on and enhanced by the internet—social media in particular—and contributed to it. Even when the news media was at its partisan height in the nineteenth century, it still served a gatekeeping function, excluding the very worst forms of deceit, defamation, and viciousness from public debate, though these forms certainly had their outlet in speeches, letters, pamphlets, and other more informal modes of expression. Those guardians are now gone, allowing a demagogue like Trump both to gain sustenance from and disseminate propaganda and lies that serve his purposes. We can be grateful that the virtual mob, unlike its historical predecessor, can’t beat up, tar and feather, hang, or set alight its victims. But it can be whipped up by a demagogue, and used to serve his purposes.

The Demagogue’s Playbook is a well-written and -sourced work of pop-scholarship, with a narrative style that moves briskly without skimping on important historical and cultural details.

Posner’s historical judgment, however, is sometimes lacking. For example, in discussing the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, Posner concedes that Roosevelt “used some demagogic tactics,” but argues that those tactics were justified:

First, [Roosevelt] acted during a serious emergency—actually two emergencies, the Great Depression and the start of World War II. The creaky American constitutional system inhibits executive action, and while that may be tolerable in normal times, in a national emergency a timid executive may spell doom. The Great Depression was already three years old when Roosevelt took office, and a new banking crisis had begun just months earlier. Hoover was not up to the task. Roosevelt also faced an extraordinarily complex situation in the run-up to World War II, when he sought to signal to Germany that America would come to the aid of the Western alliance while avoiding a domestic political backlash that could have hamstrung the eventual war effort.

One will not find many people nowadays who will deny that Roosevelt faced extraordinary challenges during his presidency, and that an extraordinary response was necessary. But it is more than a little unsettling to read Posner claiming that those exigencies justified “some demagogic tactics.”

Were we to confine the use of judicious demagoguery to Roosevelt’s presidency and his response to the likes of massive global recession and another world war, perhaps we would not have much to fear from the prospect of demagoguery at the presidential level. The obvious problem, however, is that while few presidents may encounter twin crises like the Great Depression and World War II, the emergency powers of the president are vast, and the combination of presidential demagoguery and the exercise of presidential powers at the merest suggestion of an emergency is frightening to contemplate. It is worrisome enough that the powers of the presidency have considerably expanded through the decades and show no sign of lessening. It would be worse still if we turned a blind eye to the unbounded ability of a president to engage in demagoguery in any circumstance he labels an emergency—even if no real emergency exists—because in part we are occasionally given to excusing “some demagogic tactics.” In the current Trumpian circumstances, we have seen real national crises, bogus declarations of national crises, and plenty of evidence of just how dangerous and destructive demagogic tactics can be.

Elsewhere, Posner tells us that “Roosevelt largely avoided the negative emotions and the vilification of opponents, to an extent surprising for the times. The rich were widely hated, and while Roosevelt indulged the public with his attacks on Wall Street, his language was always vague.” Mere sentences later, however, Posner writes (in parentheses and, it seems, through gritted teeth) that “Roosevelt did, however, authorize the internment of Japanese Americans and Japanese aliens after war was declared, and took other harsh war measures, including censorship of anti-war activists, which have been heavily criticized.” Yes, well, there was that whole internment thing, which perhaps should not have been presented as the afterthought Posner appears to make it out to be, and which certainly does appear to undercut the claim that Roosevelt “avoided . . . negative emotions” during his time in office and in the course of responding to the challenges and dangers posed by World War II.

Moreover, the notion that Roosevelt “avoided the negative emotions and the vilification of opponents” and that Roosevelt’s attacks on “Wall Street” and the rich were “always vague” is somewhat bizarre. In Roosevelt’s renomination acceptance speech in 1936, he made the following comments about the wealthy:

. . . out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—all undreamed of by the fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.

There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small business men and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer. Even honest and progressive-minded men of wealth, aware of their obligation to their generation, could never know just where they fitted into this dynastic scheme of things.

It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.

Perhaps “vilification” and vagueness of language are in the eye of the beholder, but it is reasonable to submit that talk about “economic royalists” who exclude from royalty “thousands of small business men and merchants”—and who are also known to Roosevelt as “privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reach[ing] out for control over Government itself” who “created a new despotism”—represents genuine vilification of political opponents.

Justifying Roosevelt’s attacks on the Supreme Court, Posner argues that “the Supreme Court really was an ideologically rigid and geriatric institution, wholly out of date and unable to appreciate the challenges of the Depression and the inadequacies of the national administrative structure.” But Posner also notes that Roosevelt attacked the Court for behaving like a “super-legislature.” Well, which is it? Was the Court wrong for acting like a “super-legislature”? Or was it wrong for not acting enough like a legislature by “appreciat[ing] the challenges of the Depression and the inadequacies of the national administrative structure”? We are left without a reconciliation of Roosevelt’s and Posner’s respective critiques.

To be sure, America owes an eternal debt to Franklin Roosevelt for all he did to get the country out of the crushing grip of the Depression and through the war. Along with Ronald Reagan, Roosevelt is surely the most consequential president of the 20th century, and he is indisputably one of America’s greatest presidents. But Roosevelt could have achieved what he achieved without having engaged in demagoguery. His greatness should not blind us to his mistakes and faults, or to the fact that acts of demagoguery by one president—however slight or even justified historians might later deem those acts to be—might open the door to even greater democracy-endangering acts of demagoguery by their successors.

Posner does not spare Richard Nixon the criticisms he deserves, but even in doing so, he argues that Nixon (and Ronald Reagan) “mostly avoided the language of the demagogue for the day-to-day business of governing.” In advancing the case, Posner states that “Nixon’s most contemptuous remarks—about liberals, Jews, Democrats, civil rights leaders, just about everyone—were made in private.” Presumably, this distances Nixon from demagoguery, but it is not unreasonable to think that private bigoted and demagogic comments can lead to public bigoted and demagogic policies. The reader need only consider Trump’s deep-seated racism and the clear connection it has with his xenophobic immigration policies to see as much.

Speaking of Trump, Posner would have done well to note that our demagogic president is supported and enabled by a veritable league of demagogues and demagogic institutions. Just as Franklin Roosevelt—for any of his dalliances with demagoguery—had nothing on demagogues like Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin, who emerged in opposition to Roosevelt and his programs, Trump’s demagoguery is echoed and augmented by various public personalities. This echo chamber of demagoguery has created an alternative universe for Trump supporters, a universe that in turn serves as the source for alternative facts to which Trump supporters cling. Because of our demagogic president and his demagogic enablers, Trumpian portions of America do not even operate from the same basic set of principles and truths as does the rest of the country. As a consequence, America is more deeply divided than at any time since the Vietnam War, and those damaging divisions are not going away anytime soon.

There is also the following astonishing comment from Posner:

It would be wrong to call Trump a dictator, or even an incipient dictator. If he’s a tyrant, it’s only in the old Platonic sense of a person who is a slave to his passions. It’s not clear how much he means what he says, and he has put relatively little effort into actually destroying institutions. His major political achievements—tax cuts, Supreme Court appointments, deregulation—did not involve any illegal or unconstitutional action. He obtained Congress’s approval of the tax cuts and the Senate’s approval of the confirmations, and he pursued deregulation using authority granted to the president by Congress in earlier statutes. If a demagogue is a politician who verbally attacks institutions and tries to shake public confidence in them, then Trump is a demagogue. But since he hasn’t yet succeeded in destroying or seriously damaging public institutions, he’s not a dictator, and doesn’t seem likely to become one.

One might perhaps come up with a restrained, dry and witty response to this passage, but speaking for myself, the words that came to mind while I read this bit of analysis were “he’s kidding, right?” To be fair to Posner, his book went to press before Trump decided to tear-gas protesters in order to get a photo op near a church, before Trump decided to send unidentified paramilitaries to randomly arrest protesters without cause and place them into unmarked vans, before Trump decided to bring about massive amounts of electoral uncertainty by launching an unprecedented attack against mail-in ballots (whose use dates back to the Civil War, when they were employed by Union soldiers to cast their votes), and before Trump decided to speculate about delaying the presidential election—or speculate about doing it over, or signal that he might refuse to accept an unfavorable electoral outcome.

But it requires no leap of imagination whatsoever at this point, in the year 2020, to consider Trump to be at least an incipient dictator. Trump’s own attorney general is moving heaven and earth to augment Trump’s power; the least the rest of us can do is to take note of that fact, and to be concerned about the extraordinary injury that would be inflicted on American democracy if William Barr’s machinations in expanding Trump’s authority are successful. As Michelle Obama put it in her speech at the Democratic convention, when it comes to the incumbent president, “if you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can.” Good advice, and when considering Trump’s dictatorial or authoritarian tendencies, it’s advice that would have served Posner well.

In another section of the book, Posner makes clear that he sees Trump for who he is (making the reluctance to call out Trump’s dictatorial tendencies all the more mysterious):

While constitutional reform may be justified, my goal in this book has been more limited. It is to persuade the reader that in electing Donald Trump to the presidency, we Americans really did choose a demagogue, a political figure who was able to obtain power by exploiting the inherent vulnerability of constitutional democracy: the tension between elite control of the institutions of democracy and the ideological commitment to mass self-government. We need to see Trump not merely as a poor choice for the presidency, like Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, or Warren Harding. Most poor presidents have been forgotten, while Trump should be remembered. We need to see him as a political monstrosity who should be repudiated by the body politic, so that politicians who eye the presidency in the future will be deterred from using Trump’s ascendance as a model.

There is much we need to do to excise Trumpian demagoguery from “the body politic,” including thinking with care about how to change the political and cultural conditions that left us susceptible to it. In doing so, we can take our cues from the first and greatest Republican president. Posner is kind enough to excerpt the passage that most meets our current moment:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Of Abraham Lincoln, Posner writes that “liberals in Europe called him a demagogue at the start of the war, but by the end they recognized him as one of the great statesmen of the era.” We could do much worse than to have someone like him to rescue and uplift us now, and to save us from demagoguery, degradation and (yes) dictatorship—incipient or worse.

Pejman Yousefzadeh

Pejman Yousefzadeh ( is an attorney in Chicago. None of his views should be attributed to his employer or any organizations with which he is affiliated. Twitter: @Yousefzadeh.