How to tell a corrosive populist from a constructive institution-reformer? How to fuse inclusive citizen autonomy and cohesive elite control? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Eric Posner. This present conversation focuses on Posner’s book The Demagogue’s Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump. Posner teaches at the University of Chicago. He has written more than 100 articles (on topics including international law and Constitutional law), as well as more than 10 books (including Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society, and The Twilight of Human Rights Law). His opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The 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.
ANDY FITCH: Before we take up populism, could we consider an even more basic political tension, the question of how modern representative democracies should reconcile elite control with principles of self-governance and citizen equality? And why should we assume that the vast majority of “anti-elite” political projects throughout US history have sought to reinvigorate our durable hybrid of elite and popular rule perhaps, but not to call for direct democracy or anything more anarchic?
ERIC POSNER: Those questions around elite control stretch across American history. Elite control often has found itself in tension with principles of popular sovereignty and self-government. I consider this basic tension more or less unavoidable, since we do need elite control at some level. We expect the people running our government, this very complicated institution, to possess certain exceptional traits and skills, usually acquired through some combination of education and relevant work experience. And the Constitutional framers tried to reconcile this tension between elite control and broader self-governance by vesting most institutional authority in elites, but allowing citizens to vote elites out of office from time to time.
This reconciliation did not satisfy many people, then or thereafter. It always remained possible for those out of power to blame all of our nation’s problems on “the elites” running government. The key was to shift this discussion from debate about the wisdom of a particular government policy, to a debate about whether the incumbent elites were acting in their own interest. Both out-of-power elites and non-elites alike found the rhetoric of anti-elitism quite useful, because it resonated with the nation’s commitment to self-government and political equality. But if, as I believe, government is possible only with some degree of elite control, then any movement that begins from anti-elite impulses must, if it succeeds, ultimately place a new group of elites in power.
Just as oppositional political forces always can blame “the elites,” incumbent powers always can depict their rivals as “populists.” Contemporary accounts of populism might foreground skepticism towards deliberative government and the administrative structures that maintain it, or rejection of pluralistic social norms in favor of zero-sum engagements. Could you offer a further clarifying distinction here between reformers seeking to make public institutions function better, and populists seeking to abolish certain norms and institutions?
Let’s suppose we dislike decisions our government has made, and policies it has implemented. We might sense something wrong with the people leading our most powerful institutions, or with the current operations of these institutions, or some foundational problem with the institutions themselves. The reformer will make arguments about why these presently defective institutions need improvement or, in more extreme circumstances, replacement. But the populist will argue that we shouldn’t have powerful institutions like this in the first place. The populist will argue that institutions inevitably get corrupted by elite control, and that the only policies we really need are simple and straightforward enough for ordinary people to formulate and to implement — so that, once again, we have no use for overreaching, wasteful institutions.
Here how can we also start parsing an all-too-human, manipulative, public-interest-flouting political representative from a dangerous demagogue: say in terms of which particular impulses such a figure channels in the public, with what degree of hostility towards norms of civility and compromise, with what longer-term consequences for institutional functioning?
First, when I refer to a typical politician or to a demagogue, I do mean these as something like ideal types. So it does make sense, as you suggest, to then differentiate between flawed political representatives and chaotic or dangerous demagogues. Our objectionable typical politicians at times display demagogic tendencies. But at some level, these politicians still remain invested in maintaining government’s basic institutional structure. They might act more or less amorally. They might prioritize their own self-interest. Yet they still observe certain limits in their challenges to essential institutions like the courts, in their brinksmanship on the separation of power, or on the lines of federal and state authority. They take for granted these broader rules of the game, even if pushing back against the rules on certain fronts in certain specific settings.
Ordinary politicians also maintain some measure of pluralist politics. They might do this cynically, of course. But they basically try to determine what their constituents want, and then engage in horse-trading and compromises with other representatives and constituencies. That will generally (although not inevitably) lead to advancing the public interest.
With the demagogue, by contrast, we face the threat of true institutional breakdown. This could mean the demagogue seizing all government authority. It could mean something more muddled or ineffective. But in any case, the demagogue attacks the current political system as an outsider, while the ordinary politician works within it.
So now to start anchoring the discussion in US history, could we consider a central tension faced by post-Revolutionary statesmen claiming to found this nation on the notion of popular sovereignty, while actually distrusting direct democracy? How does this “knife-edge view that people can be trusted sometimes to act in their interest but not all the time” get structured into basic Constitutional principles? And what perennial openings does this dynamic provide for demagogues to gain leverage by promising to restore (or finally to establish) the American people’s self-rule?
The Founders believed that the United States would need virtuous, well-educated Americans running the government and acting in the broader public’s interest. They also believed that ordinary people would willingly leave most political decisions to this virtuous, educated elite. The Constitution did give the public certain means to check unwanted developments, either directly or indirectly. Yet the Founders broadly assumed, or at least hoped, that ordinary people would see it in their own best interest to commit to something like a virtuous aristocracy — when compared to the alternatives of anarchy or dictatorship.
Now, the first decades of US history demonstrate quickly that, yes, ordinary people will, to some extent, defer to elite government — but they also find it easy to distrust the government, and they want more influence over it. They particularly want more say in the selection (and the potential removal) of government officials than the Founders had envisioned. So, over time, institutions democratize, although only to a degree.
Those original guiding principles of ordinary people agreeing to some sort of elite rule also endure in various forms. Typically, when elites have governed with reasonable skill, and when leaders have resisted corruption, this system has worked pretty well, and has overcome or at least managed whatever problems arise. But as you suggested, it still faces a foundational weakness — the constant opportunity for somebody seeking power to challenge this underlying premise that our elite-controlled representative system operates in the people’s interest. That’s where the demagogue comes in.
And before we leave behind that Constitution-drafting stage, could you point to some of the most contentious, historically unprecedented, ultimately quite vague attempts to delineate the role of a dynamic yet constrained executive branch?
To begin with, our Constitution is obviously this very short and quite vague document. But the Constitution’s vaguest part addresses the executive branch. The Founders couldn’t agree on what this branch should look like. Certain people imagined something like an elective monarch, as one extreme. At the other extreme, certain people imagined something like a clerk simply carrying out orders for Congress. Between those two contradictory views, the Founders tried to balance building a powerful state (one that could keep internal order, guarantee economic prosperity, fight off foreign enemies) and constraining this state’s ability to infringe on its citizens’ liberties.
And at that time, even amid these arguments about executive authority, certain developments during the Articles of Confederation period actually had left many people more anxious about the legislature becoming too powerful. They wanted the executive branch to serve as a check on the legislature. So with all of these contradictory concerns and impulses, a lot had to be left to get worked out later — with the expectation that George Washington, the obvious consensus pick for first US president, would help to fill in these details during his time in office.
Though as your book then notes, even before the end of Washington’s presidency, political partisanship clouds prospects for any technocratic, consensus-based articulation of Constitutionally delegated responsibilities. At the same time, political partisanship does channel the passions and loyalties of ordinary citizens (albeit somewhat symbolically), and helps to bridge the gap between where voters do have power (local, state, and House elections), and where they don’t (Senate and presidential elections). So in all of these ways, how does an emergent party system provide “a vehicle for mass democracy,” a roadblock to populist momentum, and eventually “a back door through which the demagogue, so carefully shut out of the political system by the Founders, could reenter it”?
The Founders, largely influenced by ancient Greek and Roman examples, worried about two divisions in our young nation. They worried about a sectional divide between North and South (which we can set aside for this particular point). And they worried about (and devoted much of the Constitution to resolving) this tension between the masses and the elites. But through the development of political parties, emerging differences within both the elites and within the masses also became more clear — as did this idea that out-of-power elites could regain office by castigating the incumbent government, and promising to give more authority to the masses.
Though unanticipated by the Founders, a basic structure soon solidified: with an incumbent party and an opposition party, with each party led by elites (professional politicians and their wealthy supporters), with ordinary people at the bottom, and with some sort of pointed policy orientation unifying these partisan blocs. Especially after a few decades, the parties got quite effective at making ordinary citizens (a group that of course still excluded many people) feel like a respected part of this political culture. These ordinary citizens can have some say by influencing what happens at the party level. Again a kind of democratization occurs. And we can’t really offer a provable counterfactual, but we have good reason to believe that, compared to the Founders’ baseline Constitutional apparatus, party competition during this era ultimately produces better outcomes for citizens, while making them feel more integrated within the political system.
Another advantage of sorts comes from the fact that while parties have those democratizing aspects, party leaders typically come out of a self-replicating elite. They tend to have had a sophisticated education, to have undergone significant training, to possess impressive credentials, and to display competence. Party elites also aren’t typically demagogues, because senior party officials need to operate within the system. You need a certain stature to seek office, and you probably play by most of the rules. So party operations tend to screen and push out demagogues — though of course demagogues still have more room to come to power through this party system than they did with the Founders’ Constitutional system. Party regulars always could become enthusiastic about a demagogue, and could push that person up the party hierarchy.
Then even with that latent demagogic threat, the age of Jefferson, and the quarter-century dominance by his Democratic-Republican Party, illustrate stark differences between a “populist” federal government ruling on behalf of the American people, and the American people ruling themselves. How might this span exemplify a central strain of anti-monarchical (more than anti-elitist) sentiment (more than policy orientation) in American politics? And if we can call this an “age of democracy,” where do those democratizing forces most manifest?
Jefferson came to power claiming that the corrupt Federalists served the interests of a Northeastern merchant elite, rather than advancing the public interest. We could consider this a form of populist or demagogic argument, although it certainly contained elements of truth. But Jefferson also offered a less sensational argument, that Federalists had sought to expand the state beyond the limits of republican government. I think that’s more what Jefferson really believed. He entered the presidency more as a republican than a populist. He took quite seriously the idea that government should only possess limited powers — whereas populists don’t have any fixed view about the limits of government power, so long as government pursues the people’s interest.
Jefferson remained very much an elitist personally, and I’d say even ideologically. He worried most about corrupt elites, not about eliminating elitism. His Democratic-Republican Party became its own elite (and not very democratic) institution over the years, itself eventually vulnerable to charges of corruption, and of having diminished popular sovereignty.
At the state level, different forms of democratization did emerge — sometimes as a result of sheer political opportunism, and sometimes in a more philosophically respectable vein. One piece of Jefferson and Madison’s argument against the Federalists’ overreach centered on Federalist impositions at the national level, denying states their Constitutionally granted sovereignty or autonomy. Jefferson and Madison tapped an existing anti-Federalist sentiment especially in their home state of Virginia, but also in other state populations who perceived the federal government as prioritizing certain regions and economies. States seeking to resist this Federalist dominance could appeal to the view that self-governance works best at a local level. They also could promise expanded voting rights, as a way to recruit more residents to these states, and to build up their electoral and economic power.
Andrew Jackson emerges as a viable candidate largely due to this expansion of the franchise. And Jackson’s mass-appeal style of politics further entrenches a basic disconnect between “the democratic ideal” of a presidential figurehead with whom ordinary Americans can relate, and the increasing real-world demands for an extraordinarily competent executive leader. For one critical example of how Jackson’s institution-disparaging populism proves disastrous when then gaining administrative power, could we consider the Second National Bank’s demise — and could you trace some longer-term consequences as a rapidly developing US economy loses its best chance for a moderating, stabilizing approach to regulated growth?
Jackson comes to power arguing that the national government is fundamentally corrupt. This classic populist and demagogic argument again raises the question of: so even if we agree about entrenched institutional corruption, what should replace this system of governance? Jackson had no thought-out reformist program with which to answer that question. He didn’t offer solutions to the problems he named. He just sought to gain power, and then to destroy any institutions resisting his power. Along the way, he ended up destroying the National Bank.
Scholars still debate whether any coherent theory existed for dissolving the Bank. The Bank had been poorly managed in earlier years. It did face reasonable charges of having become too powerful. Certain Americans skeptical of expanded federal authority (including some state- and local-level financial institutions) had demanded new limits on the Bank. Yet all of that could have been addressed. Congress could have written additional restrictions into the Bank’s charter, for example, as would happen later with the Federal Reserve. But instead Jackson sought to destroy this national institution.
Few voters picked Jackson because of his attack on the Bank. He just seems to have had an Ahab-like obsession. He pursued this goal even when that meant overcoming opposition in his party, even from people in his own administration. The Bank’s destruction left the US financial system much more precarious and chaotic. With the bank gone, the government continually had to improvise. Over time, the country would face far more financial crises than the United Kingdom, whose financial system was ably administered by the Bank of England. It would take the US almost a century to repair the damage.
For a second (more corrosive than destructive) legacy of Jackson’s presidency, further clarifying how populist attacks on “corrupt” institutions can become self-fulfilling prophecies, could you describe how Jackson’s broad expansion of a presidential spoils system undermined the long-term credibility and competence of America’s civil services — bringing forth generations of political hacks to an extent that “self-serving elitism” never could?
Jackson didn’t invent patronage, but he significantly expanded and normalized the practice of granting federal appointments to one’s campaign supporters — to truly unjustifiable extremes. While Jackson was not personally corrupt, he appointed a lot of corrupt and mediocre people. And, worse, he started a downward spiral in quality of the federal bureaucracy. After Jackson, it became necessary for every presidential candidate to promise positions to supporters, in part to counter the equivalent promises made by his opponents. With each succeeding presidential election, more of this legalized bribery became an inevitable part of one’s electoral strategy. More and more political hacks replaced competent officials, and much less continuity existed within bureaucratic offices. Reform would not come until the 19th century’s end.
Then between Andrew Jackson and, say, Teddy Roosevelt, the historical Populist movement (now with a capital “P”) most conspicuously raises the stakes for potential demagoguery. In your account, Populists voice legitimate grievances regarding the consolidation of political power, while indulging in an embittered moralizing view of monolithic good versus evil. So could you flesh out certain limits to any such Populist distinction between “the elites” and “the people” (themselves never unified — here for instance often formulated in starkly racist terms)? How might this Populist Era exemplify the paradox of populists not being pluralists? Or where and why did particular Populists do better by conceiving of themselves less as a mythic “people,” and more as one organized interest-group among others?
I came away from writing this book a lot more sympathetic to the historical Populists than inherited wisdom would recommend. Among historians today, you see an upswing of respect for the Populists. These late-19th-century farmers had a legitimate grievance, basically that both parties no longer took seriously their particular concerns, at a time of enormous economic and social disruption. They organized effectively at local and state levels to develop a policy program and advance their collective interests.
At the national level, the Populists failed for reasons we’ve been discussing. They instinctively drew on American traditions of blaming the elites. They blamed the political elites, the industrial elites, the urban elites, the educated elites. They lumped together all of these categories, and imagined an all-powerful class fixing political and economic outcomes. And by extension, as opposed to these immoral elites, they constructed an image of the virtuous “people.” “The people,” for the Populists, basically meant everybody except these bossy, predatory, corrupt elites.
But that distinction between the people and the elites, while powerful as a rhetorical device, never produced an equivalently coherent campaign message or policy program. The people, in Populist terms, never unified around this conception of themselves. They never gathered the strength to destroy the elites or the institutions of government, thankfully.
Instead, the Populists ultimately had to engage in ordinary politics. Ironically, the Populists probably succeeded most when they adopted more modest political visions. When they really wanted to get candidates elected, they needed to move beyond this notion of an undifferentiated American people. They needed to grapple with very real policy differences even just among white farmers in the Midwest and West. They needed to enter policy and electoral coalitions sometimes with intellectuals, or with urban Democrats. They needed to leave behind the rhetoric of demolishing institutions. Instead, they figured out how to gain institutional power in certain states, and exercise it in a reasonably responsible way, and engage in normal politics in order to advance their interests.
At the same time, of course, monopolistic powers do continue crowding out the interests of so many Americans, taking us to Teddy Roosevelt’s robust “stewardship” theory of the presidency — as representative of the public at large, and responsible on any policy concern for which neither Congress nor the courts can prevent executive action. TR’s Progressive Era re-conception of the executive branch places it at the center of technocratic expertise, sidelining Congress to the role of rubber-stamping problem-solving agencies above the partisan fray. So how does this Progressive vision for addressing populist grievances in fact further exemplify and modernize (rather than opposing) foundational conceptions of elite control? And simultaneously, how does this increasingly imperial presidency further erode checks on potential demagoguery?
Again, the Populists did have legitimate political grievances, as did all kinds of Americans. By the late 19th century, the American Constitutional system did not advance the public interest very effectively. So Progressives, eventually including Teddy Roosevelt, called for reforms that could improve government, both in the narrow sense of installing better people (who would eliminate the corruption, bribery, and local “bosses”), and in the broader sense of trying to make policy more technocratic and reflective of the public interest. TR’s presidency introduces an emphasis on institutional reform that will persist throughout most of the 20th century. TR works vigorously to update the federal government’s organizational structure, to make it more nationally focused, and more administratively centered around the president and executive-branch agencies.
You can’t call this populist in the sense of getting rid of the elites. In fact, TR’s approach significantly expands elite power. The federal government grows bigger, takes on increasingly ambitious tasks, asserts itself into more complex social and economic environments, and relies on an expanded range of scientific and professional expertise. Ironically, I guess, Progressive Age efforts to address the legitimate grievances of the populace demand the entrenchment of a new expert-led elite — taking populist concerns seriously, while formulating real-world policy responses. Along the way, this Progressive approach ends up unwittingly laying the foundation for future populist and demagogic attacks on the presidency or federal government.
TR’s insistence on presidential primacy, for example, had a reasonable bureaucratic justification: you want one person at the top to accept responsibility for subordinates’ actions. But while TR’s approach advanced technocracy, it also personalized the national government. Presidents would increasingly resemble a throwback to a king who symbolizes the body politic while also administering the state. This worked well for TR, who combined a uniquely charismatic personality with a high degree of intelligence and professional competence. But it also set the stage for a more personal type of politics playing to the strengths of demagogues.
Yeah, and in your book’s account, FDR’s New Deal administration offers the fullest flowering of progressive-minded government as, say, the technocratic regulator of capitalist free markets and their “inevitable” pathologies of monopoly, inequality, and instability. Yet for one quick test case of whether this administration pursues its own corrosive forms of demagoguery, could we consider perhaps the most revealing example of FDR engaging a public that apparently didn’t know its own best interest — his conspicuous lying in the build-up to World War Two involvement?
FDR blends the technocratic outlook and the charismatic personality even better than TR does, and of course faces even bigger challenges — from the Great Depression to World War Two. By the mid-1930s, FDR considers it in the public’s interest to oppose Nazi Germany’s growth, even if the American people themselves don’t yet consider this essential. FDR decides (correctly, in my opinion) that he needs to start addressing this national-security threat. So FDR engages in a series of lies, concealing America’s assistance to Britain, and his ultimate plan to go to war alongside Britain. He famously announces, during the 1940 election campaign, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars,” knowing full well they would be. He undoubtedly engages in undemocratic short-term tactics, which in these exceptional circumstances I consider justified.
A less charismatic president might have said: “Well, our government has determined the Nazis a threat, so regardless of what the public thinks, we need to fight this war.” That approach obviously would have been a disaster. Or a less bold president might have said: “Well, I consider the Nazis a real threat, but you all don’t, so I promise we won’t do anything. We’ll just sit on our hands.” This approach might have exemplified principles of democratic forbearance, but again would have led to disaster.
FDR faces something of an impossible situation. But he finesses it, in my view, without becoming a demagogue. One might say he honors the Founders’ hope that those in power will act rightly rather than popularly. At the same time, he must comply with democratic realities of the day. So he lies based on his own strong convictions about what the nation really needs. But he doesn’t try to divide the country, or destroy the opposition. He doesn’t appeal to prejudice or fear in the run-up to war, or even, to a surprising extent, during the war (with the major exception being approval of internment camps for Americans of Japanese descent). He doesn’t really exaggerate the Nazi threat, or attack US institutions like Congress when they stand in his way. Instead FDR, like Lincoln before him, rises to the occasion and addresses an existential threat to the nation — in advance of public understanding.
Then for the postwar era, if we accept that mid-20th-century technocrats certainly constitute an elite all the same, and certainly conjure resentment (exploitable by opportunistic politicians) all the same, what does Joseph McCarthy’s rise reveal about further cracks in Constitutional and normative bulwarks? And how do McCarthy’s antics expose a particular dilemma plaguing pluralist-minded public institutions in the decades to follow: that when facing populist condemnation, any attempts to defend themselves will just prompt further accusations about their supposedly biased, partisan, self-serving ways?
Technocratic institutions are both vital and vulnerable. They can function only so long as the public has confidence in them. And the public trusts these institutions only so long as they operate even-handedly and on behalf of our collective interests. But those interests themselves often get divisive and contradictory. And this gives power-hungry figures like Joseph McCarthy a permanent opening. It doesn’t take much cleverness to make a superficially plausible argument along the lines of: “These institutions just act in their own interests, protecting their own kind. They don’t care about the public. In fact they feel contempt for the public. They willingly flout the public’s obvious preferences.” It doesn’t take cleverness to make this argument. It just takes shamelessness.
At that point, public institutions face a serious bind. If they defend themselves, they might come across as self-interested. If they appeal to the other party for support, then the demagogue can offer this as proof of their partisan bias. If they call out the demagogue’s power-grabbing tactics, then some will see them as anti-democratic. McCarthy both exploits and exposes all of these weak points as he persuades a significant portion of the public to think of the broader national-security establishment as a bunch of self-serving, amoral, timid, cosmopolitan elites. To a surprising extent, McCarthy’s rhetoric echoes Andrew Jackson’s war on the Bank.
So at some point, with dubious but politically effective populist appeals by a long line of unsavory 20th-century figures (from McCarthy, to George Wallace, to various televangelists) in mind, I guess we’ll need to bring in Donald Trump, which typically eclipses more engaging conversational topics [Laughter]. But before we get there, could we pause on, say, an Obama Era anti-elitism bifurcated (at least from my outsider’s perspective) into ultra-wealthy Koch Network powerbrokers with a clear policy agenda, and impromptu Tea Party activists combining class-based and race-based populist impulses both from left and right? If you had the opportunity to address that latter group, what case would you make for why America’s economically and/or culturally displaced communities often benefit more from the constructive reform, rather than the disruptive abolition, of prominent public institutions?
I think of the Koch brothers as pushing a bureaucracy-shrinking (but not nihilistically anti-bureaucratic) approach. This position would argue that certain governmental institutions do a bad job of allocating resources efficiently and fairly, and that we have too many Washington bureaucrats who just muck around and make things worse, and so we need to rely more on markets. This position has a bit of an anti-elitist feel because it unfairly castigates bureaucrats, but it remains within an enduring ideology that has a number of good-faith supporters. In truth, it is a pro-elite position, albeit pro-corporate elite rather than pro-government elite.
I’m actually not sure what I’d say to Tea Party activists, whose views are less focused and disciplined, and reflect cultural as well as economic resentments. I suppose I’d say that, to achieve their goals, they need not just government on their side (they understand that), but high-quality government institutions. The US has a robust market economy by global standards, because it has excellent institutions — excellent courts, excellent bureaucracies. If Tea Party activists seek cultural change, they need the courts and bureaucracies on their side as well. But even if activists understand this, a movement like the Tea Party instantly loses its rhetorical power when it shifts from saying “Tear down the government” to “Improve the process by which elected officials evaluate and supervise government technocrats.”
So now could you flesh out your account of Trump winning the presidency largely because he wins the 2016 Republican primary, and of Trump winning the primary first because he can (following post-1968 party reforms), second because he does in fact embody the political demagogue (at a moment when long-term wage stagnation and economic polarization, alongside the acute and demoralizing consequences of the Iraq invasion and the Great Recession, all further discredit elites in both major parties), and third because he fills the bill as a rich political celebrity capable of appealing directly to voters without first earning support from party leaders?
Here I’d emphasize Trump’s populist demagoguery, particularly at a moment when his condemnation of aloof or indifferent or corrupt elites has great resonance with voters in both parties. In a classic populist gesture, Trump the candidate offers no specificity about which particular policy decisions led up to those problems you mentioned, or how institutional reform will now address these problems and prevent them from resurfacing in the future. He basically just says: “We need to demolish this system, and then I’ll take care of everything.”
And then in terms of Trump’s core demagogic message, I’d focus on his appeal to fear and prejudice, and his quite obvious and deliberate attempts to divide the country into a white working class, or rural communities, or “real Americans” — and everybody else (including of course the corrupt, manipulative elites). None of the other Republican candidates came close to that type of argument. So while Trump didn’t have and still doesn’t have a broad popular base, he could distinguish himself from all other candidates and emerge as the last one standing in the primary.
In terms now of whether this dangerous demagogic president has a solid chance of becoming our first dictator, could you make your basic case that Trump’s largely unsuccessful attempts to eviscerate American institutions suggest a more likely (still dismaying) long-term outcome of increasingly corrosive and irresolvable public discourse, of Andrew Jackson-level corruption in American bureaucracy (in absurd contrast to Trump’s “drain the swamp” campaigning), and of calls for restored party gatekeeping and checks on executive authority — leaving both electoral politics and governmental functioning less dynamic and less effective?
One key aspect of demagoguery is its performative nature. When deployed by a powerful person like the US president, demagogic rhetoric certainly can have a significant impact on public attitudes and public confidence. But the long-term legacy of this demagogic style remains an open question. Trump has implemented some policies that any normal Republican president might oversee. Appointing conservatives to the judiciary doesn’t count as demagogic. But Trump’s more conspicuously unqualified or incompetent appointments, his verbal attacks on various institutions, and his hostile response to perceived (perhaps sometimes imagined) political threats do make any assessment of the risks pretty complicated. You can point to the competent officials or the political hacks, to Trump’s lax approach on executive-branch administration or his attempts to bully and intimidate competing sources of power. Overall, I think this has led and will continue leading to bad short-term policy outcomes. But Trump’s more corrosive long-term effect will come from his politicization of expert technocratic institutions — ideally regarded as neutral, and respected and trusted by broad consensus.
We can see the short-term effects of Trump’s bad decisions every day. And with Andrew Jackson as our closest example, we might envision the American bureaucracy getting increasingly dysfunctional over the next 10 to 30 years. Though of course we’ll also see reformers try to repair that. We might even get a good-governance reaction to Trump’s incompetence, which could improve federal agencies. But in any case, for a while at least, the loss of public confidence in our institutions will mean neither American citizens nor even good-faith political leaders can rely as much on these institutions — making effective government just generally harder.
Let’s take something like the invocation of the Insurrection Act last month. I never thought Trump or his advisors contemplated mobilizing the military so that it could massacre protesters and install Trump as dictator. But does that mean everyone should simply ignore him? There’s no good way to respond to Trump’s demagogic theatrics. If you point to this military mobilization as a dangerous sign, then Trump supporters will just say: “Look, nothing happened. You all overreacted, as you always do. He just wanted to have the Army positioned in case the rioters got out of control. He made a perfectly reasonable call.” So then we all end up one step further divided, and suspicious of each other’s motives, and dismissive of each other’s perspective.
The ultimate outcome of that controversy is that Trump has taken the military, one of the few remaining institutions that the public generally trusts (because of its admirable history of staying out of our politics, especially compared to global norms), and has forced it into politics. Trump basically said: “The Army’s on my side.” In the process, he has forced Army officers to say: “Actually, we’re not.” But even with that modest gesture, the military, with its commitment to staying out of politics, to remaining a technocratic institution that doesn’t take sides, seems (again at least to some Americans) to have taken a side. At that point, whether or not Trump deploys more troops, he can point to generals coming out against him on record. He can lump the military into the supposed deep state conspiring against him. He can attack the Army the same way he has attacked the FBI, the CIA, and countless other government institutions. Trump might benefit politically, at least in his own mind. But the public interest, and one of our most important public institutions, certainly suffers.
Finally then, pushing hopefully past Trump, and for one longer-term take on proper democratic and institutional functioning: what to do about the reality of an ever greater demand for ever more rarefied expertise in our most crucial political and economic and legal and national-defense decision-making? What to do if (or when) this policy calculus itself pushes beyond the capacities of any human reasoning? If AI provides the ultimate technocracy, what can a durable hybrid of elite and popular rule look like then?
I think that we have lessons to learn from history here. Responsible elected officials always have faced the temptation to make government as technocratic as possible, to pursue the best outcomes by making our policies and maybe our politics as rational and methodical and expert-driven as we can. According to that same logic, computers might at some point emerge as the super-experts. But the government will always still need popular political support. If ordinary people can’t understand how government decisions get made, then public support will at best remain fickle — secure during good times, and vulnerable in bad. And of course those tensions might just intensify with the advance of technology: with one side claiming that we need to put faith in these mysterious machines making decisions beyond our comprehension, and the other side completely distrusting anything but charismatic leaders following their gut.
As you suggest, this could open up new possibilities for demagoguery, and for demanding that the people reassert control over our institutions. Both government and public responses to climate change provide one clear example. It seems likely that as the magnitudes of our climate problems increase, many governments will seek to solve this crisis technocratically, which could trigger a further backlash in certain segments of the electorate. Even if, as I expect, a substantial majority of citizens recognize the need to take serious measures, that doesn’t mean all of these people would willingly entrust a huge amount of political power to technocratic agencies. It instead means we maybe can only expect a compromised role for our technocratic agencies — which I’d consider a big problem.
Your question also makes clear the temptation we ourselves might face to consider Trump an anomaly, and to anxiously await the day when we can resume our reliable American political traditions. We might tell ourselves that once every hundred or two hundred years, an Andrew Jackson or Donald Trump comes along, just based on the inevitable (but largely containable) risks posed by our electoral system. We might hope, as with other present crises, that if we can endure one more day of this, maybe the whole problem will disappear. But in the early 20th century, Walter Lippmann already saw an increasing gap between the demand for technocratic expertise, and the electorate’s ability to understand or trust that expertise. Today this gap is far wider — and in the near future, perhaps wider still. In that case, we should worry about demagogues proving not just a random or even cyclical problem, like locusts or viral pandemics, but one we’ll face with increasing frequency.
Portrait of Eric Posner by Lloyd Degrane.