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The Demagogue's Playbook : The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump - Eric A. Posner

The Demagogue's Playbook

The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump

By: Eric A. Posner

Hardcover | 12 September 2020

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As President, Donald Trump has made a habit of undermining democratic institutions. Is this the new normal?

In The Demagogue's Playbook, Eric A. Posner argues that Trump falls within a tradition of American political personalities who have used the language of exploitation and grievance to amass power—and, in many cases, were quite popular in their time. From Andrew Jackson to Father Charlies Coughlin, the viscously anti-semetic radio personality of the early 20th century, these demagogues attacked what they perceived as "enemies of the people": the elites, the journalists, the policy-makers, and the institutional norms of our republican system. On the surface, this defense of the "common people" feels oddly noble. But, as Posner shows, this defense is an emperor with no clothes. Rather than protect, the demagogue uses everyday people—and invents their enemies—to undermine, ultimately, their self-interest.

Posner exposes how we must move past the demagogue's rhetoric and protect the features of a democracy that help it thrive: a free press, a group of experts who oversee the various agencies tasked with improving American lives, and the checks and balances that pose restrictions on public office. Only under such norms can a democracy survive. In short, can a democracy thrive under a demagogue? Posner finds no reason to believe so, and The Demagogue's Playbook provocatively reveals how.

About the Author

Eric A. Posner teaches at the University of Chicago. He has written twelve books, more than one hundred articles on constitutional law, presidential power, and other topics, and opinion pieces for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Republic, Slate, and other popular news outlets. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Law Institute.
Industry Reviews

The New York Times Book Review Editor's Pick

A great virtue of Posner's conceptual scheme is that it allows him to focus on those aspects of Trump's presidency that are of lasting significance. Instead of condemning demagogues for any phrase or policy he happens to dislike, he zeros in on their dangerous habit of positing a conflict between the people and the very institutions that have historically enabled them to exert their power...It is difficult to argue with Posner's conclusion.
--Yascha Mounk, The New York Times Book Review

Read this immensely important book.
--Samantha Power, former US ambassador to the UN and Pulitzer-Prize winning author, on Twitter

How do we recognize a demagogue when we see one? In this insightful book, Eric Posner shows us that although democracies are inherently vulnerable to demagogues, America has seen remarkably few of them. Until now. The Demagogue's Playbook makes a compelling case that Donald Trump differs from nearly all other flawed, dishonest, or populist politicians that have passed through American politics. He is a true demagogue--a living manifestation of one our Founders' greatest fears. This is an important read for anyone concerned about the fate of American democracy.
--Steven Levitsky, Harvard University, and New York Times bestselling co-author of How Democracies Die

An almost novellike stroll through American history...An insightful analysis into what went wrong with the Founders' dream.
--Kirkus Reviews

Professor Posner has made an outstanding, superbly written analysis of how Donald Trump has drawn on the 'demagogue's playbook' to win a presidency that is severely testing our constitutional democracy. He provides crucial historical perspective on the demagogue as a distinctive and dangerous brand of leader in the American political experience--and on the erosion of the protections that the Founders hoped to have built against a full-fledged demagogue's capture of the White House. 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

"[A] skillful survey of American political history. [Posner] delivers a powerful argument for the need to restore constitutional safeguards against demagoguery."
--Publishers Weekly

A brilliant and highly original discussion of one of the most important topics of the current era. Essential reading if you want to understand the world today.
--Cass Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, and co-author of the international bestseller, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

In a calm tone and with careful research and keen reasoning, Eric Posner illuminates the interplay of elitism, demagoguery, and populism in American politics, past and present. With a refreshing, sensible clarity, he cuts through the hyperbole and hysteria that often distorts assessments of our republic, particularly at this time.
--Alan Taylor, Pulitzer Prize winning historian of William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early Republic and The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832

Moving through a series of political and historical events and personalities, including Andrew Jackson, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump, Posner illuminates the characteristics that make someone a "demagogue," including vicious personal attacks on political opponents, divisive accusations against vulnerable groups, the intentional spreading of lies, and efforts to undermine such fundamental institutions as the press and the judiciary. This work is necessary reading for anyone who wants to understand the challenges we, as a nation, face in the era of Trump.
--Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Professor of Law, The University of Chicago, and author of Perilous Times, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize

"A magnificent book that traces the concepts of populism and demagoguery throughout American history. The book is hopeful in that the country has survived other demagogues and frightening in reminding us of how such a man can come to power."
--Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley School of Law, and bestselling author of We the People: A Progressive Reading of the Constitution for the 21st Century

Eric Posner is an incisive guide and a wise advisor as he leads us through the history and conditions that gave rise to two disruptive American demagogues, Andrew Jackson and the more dangerous Donald Trump. He takes us on this journey so that we may understand, with clear eyes, what we have done, and to recognize the scale of the attack we face against our own democratic institutions.
--Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise

A fascinating political 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.

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