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The Demagogue's Playbook
Cover of The Demagogue's Playbook
The Demagogue's Playbook
The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump

A New York Times Book Review Editor's Pick
What Happens to Democracy When a Demagogue Comes to Power?

"It is hard to imagine understanding the Trump presidency and its significance without reading this book."
—Bob Bauer, Former Chief Counsel to President Barack Obama
What—and who—is a demagogue? How did America's Founders envision the presidency? What should a constitutional democracy look like—and how can it be fixed when it appears to be broken?
Something is definitely wrong with Donald Trump's presidency, but what exactly? The extraordinary negative reaction to Trump's election—by conservative intellectuals, liberals, Democrats, and global leaders alike—goes beyond ordinary partisan and policy disagreements. It reflects genuine fear about the vitality of our constitutional system. The Founders, reaching back to classical precedents, feared that their experiment in mass self-government could produce a demagogue: a charismatic ruler who would gain and hold on to power by manipulating the public rather than by advancing the public good.
President Trump, who has played to the mob and attacked institutions from the judiciary to the press, appears to embody these ideas. How can we move past his rhetoric and maintain faith in our great nation?
In The Demagogue's Playbook, acclaimed legal scholar Eric A. Posner offers a blueprint for how America can prevent the rise of another demagogue and protect the features of a democracy that help it thrive—and restore national greatness, for one and all.
"Cuts through the hyperbole and hysteria that often distorts assessments of our republic, particularly at this time." Alan Taylor, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History

A New York Times Book Review Editor's Pick
What Happens to Democracy When a Demagogue Comes to Power?

"It is hard to imagine understanding the Trump presidency and its significance without reading this book."
—Bob Bauer, Former Chief Counsel to President Barack Obama
What—and who—is a demagogue? How did America's Founders envision the presidency? What should a constitutional democracy look like—and how can it be fixed when it appears to be broken?
Something is definitely wrong with Donald Trump's presidency, but what exactly? The extraordinary negative reaction to Trump's election—by conservative intellectuals, liberals, Democrats, and global leaders alike—goes beyond ordinary partisan and policy disagreements. It reflects genuine fear about the vitality of our constitutional system. The Founders, reaching back to classical precedents, feared that their experiment in mass self-government could produce a demagogue: a charismatic ruler who would gain and hold on to power by manipulating the public rather than by advancing the public good.
President Trump, who has played to the mob and attacked institutions from the judiciary to the press, appears to embody these ideas. How can we move past his rhetoric and maintain faith in our great nation?
In The Demagogue's Playbook, acclaimed legal scholar Eric A. Posner offers a blueprint for how America can prevent the rise of another demagogue and protect the features of a democracy that help it thrive—and restore national greatness, for one and all.
"Cuts through the hyperbole and hysteria that often distorts assessments of our republic, particularly at this time." Alan Taylor, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History

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About the Author-
  • ERIC A. POSNER teaches at the University of Chicago. He has written more than one hundred articles on international law, constitutional law, and other topics, and as well as more than ten books, including Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society and The Twilight of Human Rights Law. He has written opinion pieces for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Republic, Slate, and other popular media. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Law Institute.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    April 1, 2020
    How the Founding Fathers' worst fear materialized. Well-grounded in classical precedents, the founders were worried that their experiment in republican self-government could produce a demagogue, a charismatic leader who would gain and hold on to power by manipulating the public rather than by advancing the public good. Posner, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, contends two presidents have embodied that fear: Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump. However, this book is not all about Trump; it is an almost novellike stroll through American history beginning with the founders' fear and ending with one chapter on Trump. Along the way, Posner charts the careers of such American demagogues as Huey Long, George Wallace, and Joe McCarthy and shows the similarities they share with Trump. The author argues that two things are necessary for a demagogue to rise: a propitious political condition and the right person. In Trump's case, writes Posner, the condition was that rank-and-file Republicans were blaming "elites" for such failures as the Iraq War and stagnating wages, and they wanted something new. The necessary person not only had to be an outsider--because no one inside the party was showing any hint of anything new--but also someone with significant public recognition, great wealth, or, preferably, both. And he had to be shameless. What better person than Trump? Posner checks off the characteristics of a demagogue and details how deeply each one applies to Trump. For example, they attack anyone who opposes or criticizes them; they have contempt for the truth; they despise institutions, public and private; they blame and attack elite power. As the author writes, his goal was "to persuade the reader that in electing Donald Trump to the presidency, we Americans really did choose a demagogue." He has succeeded. An insightful analysis into what went wrong with the founders' dream.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    April 13, 2020
    University of Chicago Law School professor Posner (coauthor, Radical Markets) identifies precedents for Donald Trump’s rise to power in this skillful survey of American political history. Defining a demagogue as “a charismatic leader who would gain and hold on to power by manipulating the public rather than by advancing the public good,” Posner explains how the Founding Fathers envisioned and sought to protect the U.S. from such a threat, then labels Andrew Jackson the “First Demagogue”—a so-called “man of the people” who exploited the public’s fear and distrust of Native Americans and immigrants, and ran a notoriously corrupt administration. Posner also examines populist uprisings, including the 19th-century Grange movement of distressed farmers, and notes that Louisiana’s populist governor and senator Huey Long pushed FDR for more radical reforms in the New Deal. Declaring Trump the “Second Demagogue,” Posner analyzes the social, economic, and cultural forces behind his election, and calls on voters to remember Trump “not merely as a poor choice for the presidency. as a political monstrosity who should be repudiated by the body politic.” Though Posner’s prose tends to be more dry and technical than vivid, he delivers a powerful argument for the need to restore constitutional safeguards against demagoguery. Trump naysayers will be enlightened.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from June 1, 2020
    In his latest book, Posner (Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society, 2018) takes readers through a fascinating political history focused on the men (yes, no women so far) who best illustrate the manipulative power of the populist demagogue. A demagogue exploits, for self-aggrandizement, the emotions of the masses against perceived elites and undermines trust in the political and civic institutions of their eras. Posner draws many striking parallels between Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson, along with William Bryan Jennings, Joseph McCarthy, Huey Long, George Wallace, Charles Coughlin, and Richard Nixon. Many of the post-Civil War populists used nativism to unify whites against immigrants as well as religious and ethnic minorities in growing urban centers, all of them frequent targets of Donald Trump's rhetoric. By reading Posner's survey, readers will see more clearly and starkly the historical context of Trump's rise to political power and how he appeals and holds on to his base.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

  • Publishers Weekly "[A] skillful survey of American political history. [Posner] delivers a powerful argument for the need to restore constitutional safeguards against demagoguery."
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The Demagogue's Playbook
The Demagogue's Playbook
The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump
Eric A. Posner
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