Vol. 31 No. 1 (January 2021) pp. 8-11

THE DEMAGOGUE’S PLAYBOOK: THE BATTLE FOR AMERICAN DEMOCRACY FROM THE FOUNDERS TO TRUMP, by Eric A. Posner. New York: All Points Books, 2020. 310 pp. $28.99. Cloth ISBN 9781250303035.

Reviewed by Miguel Schor, Drake University Law School. E-mail:

Eric Posner’s THE DEMAGOGUE’S PLAYBOOK: THE BATTLE FOR AMERICAN DEMOCRACY FROM THE FOUNDERS TO TRUMP is part of a remarkable stream of recent monographs focusing on democratic breakdown and erosion precipitated by the rise of populist authoritarianism in the United States and around the globe (Ginsburg and Huq 2018, Graber et al. 2018, Howell and Moe 2020, Lepore 2018, Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018, Mettler and Lieberman 2020, Mounk 2018, Norris and Inglehart 2019, Posner 2020, Przeworski 2019, Runciman 2018, Sunstein 2018, and Weyland and Madrid 2019). This literature grapples with the puzzle of how best to understand the challenge to constitutional democracy posed by charismatic leaders who rely on popular support to upend institutions. One strand of this literature is comparative and seeks to determine why so many polities around the globe are turning to populist authoritarianism. The other strand of the literature is focused on the United States and what the presidency of Donald Trump augurs for American democracy.

Posner’s THE DEMAGOGUE’S PLAYBOOK obviously belongs to the latter strand of this literature. The book begins with a clear and invaluable thesis. Posner argues that scholars need to resurrect the term demagogue. The term was important to the framers, but has been displaced in recent scholarship by the term populist authoritarian. Posner defines a demagogue as 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 . . . that stand in their way” (p. 9). Underpinning Posner’s definition is the contrast he draws between a statesman who reforms or builds institutions and a demagogue who destroys institutions as a means of cementing personalist rule.

Posner’s analysis is shaped by the critics of Athenian democracy such as Plato. The views of the framers of the Constitution were also shaped by democracy’s critics (Klarman 2016). Chapter 1 points out that the framers feared how demagogues throughout history mobilized popular support to tear republics apart. They understood that demagogues turn the “essence of democracy—its reliance on the wisdom of the people” into its “chief vulnerability” (p. 35). The solution, or so the framers believed, was to make it difficult for majorities to govern by erecting “numerous bulwarks against populist rule” (p. 52). The framers fashioned, as the historian Richard Hofstadter (1970) noted, the constitution against parties to solve the “problem” that majorities might pose to a representative democracy. [*9]

Posner argues that the design of the Constitution facilitated a struggle throughout American history between political elites and popular forces. Although THE DEMAGOGUE’S PLAYBOOK provides a sketch of this battle throughout American history, Chapter 3, entitled “The First Demagogue: Andrew Jackson” is critical. Posner argues that Jackson’s presidency “offers an opportunity to reflect on how populism operates” (p. 86). Jackson mobilized popular support—among those human beings in the United States entitled to vote—by attacking political elites as “corrupt.” Jackson did not believe in a legitimate opposition, treated criticism as a personal attack, and introduced the spoils system. The lynchpin of his political program was the destruction of the Bank of the United States which had baleful consequences for the economy. Jackson’s presidency, in short, rested on deepening political polarization, attacking and undermining institutions, and ensuring that key supporters could profit from the presidency.

Trump is no student of history, yet his presidency mirrors Jackson’s. The last chapter entitled “The Second Demagogue: Donald Trump” makes three points. The first is that “demagoguery” has “deep roots” in American political culture which reflects a struggle between popular forces and elites (p. 229). The second is that Trump updated the demagogue’s playbook by using social media to spread disinformation, but otherwise acted as Andrew Jackson and other populist authoritarians did by attacking elites and institutions. The third is that while America’s political culture and “dense institutional structure” will prevent Trump from becoming a dictator, Trump is a demagogue. Americans, Posner concludes, need to see Trump as a “political monstrosity who should be repudiated by the body politic” (p. 259).

THE DEMAGOGUE’S PLAYBOOK is a fine study of a malaise endemic to all democracies which is that deep citizen dissatisfaction with government provides an opportunity structure that demagogues can exploit. Although scholars generally employ the term populist authoritarian to describe such leaders, Posner is quite right to focus on the word demagogue for two reasons. The first is that the root meaning of the term is tied to the power of speech. Demagogues wield falsity to mobilize supporters and exhaust opponents. The second is that demagogues reside in a peculiar political space that lies between democracy and authoritarianism. They seek to fashion a deviant form of democracy in which institutions are eroded and replaced with personalist loyalty to a leader.

The book, however, has two weaknesses. The first is that the author’s reading of American history is perhaps overly reductionist. Lepore (2018), for example, reframes American history as a means of understanding the Trump presidency, but it is a story thick with description and open to contingencies. The second is that by focusing on American history rather than the global eruption of authoritarianism, the book overly emphasizes continuities while downplaying the disruptions eroding contemporary democracies around the globe. The deep puzzle scholars must grapple with, though, is why demagogues are enjoying their day in the democratic sun at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The events of January 6, 2021 vividly underscore the timeliness of THE DEMAGOGUE’S PLAYBOOK. The attack by Donald Trump’s supporters on the Congress as it met to certify the election of Joe Biden as the forty-sixth President of the United States was motivated by false speech. Donald Trump [*10] relied on a big lie to convince his followers that the election was fraudulent (Snyder 2021). Scholars have long believed that American democracy was impervious to democratic breakdown and erosion. Donald Trump lit a fire that damaged our democracy and undermined the notion of American exceptionalism (Schor 2020).


Ginsburg, Tom and Aziz Huq. 2018. HOW TO SAVE A CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Graber, Mark, Sanford Levinson, and Mark Tushnet, eds. 2018. CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY IN CRISIS. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hofstadter, Richard. 1970. THE IDEA OF A PARTY SYSTEM: THE RISE OF LEGITIMATE OPPOSITION IN THE UNITED STATES, 1780-1840. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Howell, William G. and Terry M. Moe. 2020. PRESIDENTS, POPULISM, AND THE CRISIS OF DEMOCRACY. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Klarman, Michael J. 2016. THE FRAMERS’ COUP: THE MAKING OF THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lepore, Jill. 2018. THESE TRUTHS: A HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE. New York: Crown Books.

Mettler, Suzanne and Robert C. Lieberman. 2020. THE RECURRING CRISES OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY: FOUR THREATS. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Mounk, Yascha. 2018. THE PEOPLE VS. DEMOCRACY: WHY OUR FREEDOM IS IN DANGER AND HOW TO SAVE IT. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart. 2019. CULTURAL BACKLASH: TRUMP, BREXIT, AND AUTHORITARIAN POPULISM. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Przeworski, Adam. 2019. CRISES OF DEMOCRACY. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Runciman, David. 2018. HOW DEMOCRACY ENDS. New York: Basic Books.

Schor, Miguel. 2020. “Trumpism and the Continuing Challenges to Three Political-Constitutionalist Orthodoxies.” [*11]

Snyder, Timothy. 2021. ‘The American Abyss.’ THE NEW YORK TIMES. Jan. 21.

Sunstein, Cass R. 2018. CAN IT HAPPEN HERE? AUTHORITARIANISM IN AMERICA. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Weyland, Kurt and Raúl Madrid, eds. 2019. WHEN DEMOCRACY TRUMPS POPULISM: EUROPEAN AND LATIN AMERICAN LESSONS FOR THE UNITED STATES. New York: Cambridge University Press.

© Copyright 2021 by author, Miguel Schor