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Demagogues & Democracy

Dr. Merritt’s research on the interface of demagogues and democracy began in January 2018 at Vanderbilt University, where over a two-year period he served as a visiting scholar in three departments: Department of History, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and the Center For Biomedical Ethics and Society. He pursued research and writing on this interdisciplinary topic concurrent with research for his book Disunion Among Ourselves, a political history of the American Revolution. 


Collection of Essays: 

How to Prevent Another Violent Attack on the Presidential Transfer of Power: A Collection of Essays Prepared for the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol (2021). The cover letter included with this collection of essays argues that a vital step in the prevention of future violent disruptions to the peaceful transfer of power in the United States is the reinvigoration of political institutions which successfully thwart the rise of demagogues to the Oval Office, irrespective of the party affiliation of the demagogue. It encourages the House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 Attack to study the history and political science of demagogues as part of their investigation. Further, it argues that members must apply the correct “political diagnosis” to the former president as they search for insights and preventive solutions. That diagnosis is demagogue. Armed with the right political diagnosis, the Select Committee will stand the best chance possible of generating effective recommendations to make sure such an attack never happens again. Read More



Trump’s Place in History? He is the Supreme American Demagogue (Los Angeles Times, 2021). It is never too early to begin to consider an ex-president's place in history. And, in the case of Donald J. Trump, what future historians are going to say is unambiguous. Trump’s fate in history is to become first among the cast of dishonored political figures known as "demagogues." Compared with Trump, famous demagogues like Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy will become footnotes. Trump will be remembered as the first full-blown demagogue in the White House, one who incited seditious violence on the U.S. Capitol — and for little else. Over time, Democrats and Republicans will unite in this historical understanding of the 45th president, just as they have long since reached consensus about Democrat Huey Long and Republican Joseph McCarthy. The judgment of Trump will not be a partisan matter. Republicans in particular should recognize this fact and get on the right side of history, even if it means enduring criticism from constituents and the loss of reelection to office.  Read More

Would the Founders Convict Trump and Bar Him From Office? (The New York Times, 2021). Published on the opening day of the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump in the Senate, this op-ed argues that if the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention were sitting as jurors in the trial, they would cast two near unanimous votes: first, to convict the president of an impeachable offense, and second, to disqualify him from holding future federal office. They would vote in this way because they believed as a matter of civic principle that ethical leadership is the glue that holds a constitutional republic together. The op-ed underscores that the framers of the Constitution wrote the language of the impeachment powers specifically with a demagogue like Trump in mind. As incisive political scientists steeped in history, they understood that demagogues are the singular poison that infects and kills republics and democracies. Today's gatekeepers of our constitutional democracy must understand the same lifesaving principle. Read More

Civics 101: Keep Demagogues Out of Democracy (Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American, 2021). This article maintains that the preservation of a healthy constitutional democracy in the United States hinges critically on whether Americans heed a golden rule of this free form of government as taught throughout the ages by democracy experts like Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Livy, Edward Gibbon, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln and especially the framers of the U.S. Constitution. That rule is that demagogues erode and eventually destroy democracies. In their writings and speeches, these incisive political philosophers teach us that demagogues, especially those serving as heads of state, are to the body politic of democracy what cancer is to the human body. If the cancer is not kept out, or removed, it eviscerates critical organs and eventually mutates democracy into autocracy. Read More

Why America Must Not Reelect a Demagogue: That’s What Trump Is, and It Matters (New York Daily News, 2020). Trump’s election to the American presidency has exposed a fatal Achilles' heel of democracy. It is demagogues. The great danger of this political personality type is that demagogues are temperamentally wired to run roughshod over everything we hold dear in our representative government: the Constitution, Bill of Rights, impartial courts, the rule of law, institutional norms, and, not least, free and fair elections followed by the peaceful transfer of power. In order to arrest our constitutional democracy’s descent into chaos and breakdown, we must get Trump’s "political diagnosis" right. According to the political science of democracy, he is not a fascist, autocrat, or dictator. He is a demagogue — and therefore the worst poison possible to a democracy. Voters must understand this clearly. The health, and possibly survival, of our democracy depends upon it. Read More

Why Demagogues Were the Founding Fathers' Greatest Fear (Los Angeles Times, 2019). Subsequently published by twenty-two other newspapers, this op-ed reveals that the founders self-consciously drafted the Constitution to be a bulwark against demagogues gaining power in the federal government. As Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 1: “History will teach us that ... of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” Read More

Alexander Hamilton Would Have Led the Charge to Oust Donald Trump (Los Angeles Times, 2020). Published at the height of the impeachment trial of Donald Trump in the Senate, this op-ed tells the history of Alexander Hamilton's campaign in early 1801 to defeat a demagogue, Aaron Burr, and instead elect his political arch-rival, Thomas Jefferson, as president of the United States. Hamilton deplored Jefferson's policies but believed he, unlike Burr, was dedicated to the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law. Burr, he said, who was “deficient in honesty” and “one of the most unprincipled men in the UStates,” would “disturb our institutions” and be governed by a singular principle — “to get power by any means and to keep it by all means.”​ Read More


The Constitution Must Be Our ‘Political Religion’: Remembering Lincoln’s Words (Seattle Times, 2019). Classically intelligent, as well as emotionally intelligent, Lincoln warned in 1838 that if Americans tolerate demagoguery and a “mobocratic spirit” to overtake the rule of law, a fatal contagion would set in. The People would lose faith in democracy and the Constitution, leading to a descent into anarchy. When this happened, Lincoln said, a demoralized and pessimistic people, no longer feeling themselves protected by the laws, would relinquish their “attachment” to democractic government and turn instead to a Napoleon or Caesar for rescue and salvation. Read More

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