Political Historian at Vanderbilt University
As Seen In
A political historian at Vanderbilt, Eli Merritt has written about the dangers of demagogues to democracy for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and Philadelphia Inquirer, among dozens of other news outlets. He writes a Substack newsletter called American Commonwealth that explores the origins of the United States’ political discontents and solutions to them.
See summaries of 2018-22 articles here.
He completed his B.A. in History at Yale; M.A. in Ethics at Yale, M.D. at Case Western Reserve; internal medicine internship at the Lahey Clinic; and psychiatry residency at Stanford.
He is the editor of The Curse of Demagogues: Lessons Learned from the Presidency of Donald J. Trump (Spotlight Press, November 2022), a collection of essays in which seven of his pieces appear. He has several other books forthcoming in 2023.
His areas of academic expertise are:
the politics of the founding era of the United States
the intersection of demagogues and democracy
the ethics of constitutional democracy
He divides his time between San Francisco, CA, and Nashville, TN, where he is a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University.
Primary email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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The Curse of Demagogues: Lessons Learned from the Presidency of Donald J. Trump is a collection of thirty-two essays by twenty-two writers that makes the case that the pathway back to a healthy American democracy is for citizens, first, to understand demagogues and, second, to defend against them.
The book makes the story of Donald Trump’s rise to the White House coherent and understandable. Trump, a demagogue, gained ascendancy in a laissez-faire political culture wherein neither the Republican Party nor the other gatekeepers of democracy, including the news media, effectively counteracted him. Once in the highest office in the land, Trump devolved into authoritarianism in order to retain power, as demagogues are well-known to do.
To restore our democracy, we must defend it against demagogues by strengthening gatekeeping systems within political parties, the media, and the U.S. Congress (powers of impeachment, conviction, and disqualification from future office) and through vigorous civics, ethics, and media literacy education K-12 and beyond.
Prominent contributing writers include:
Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian
Jeff Flake, former Republican U.S. senator
Barbara Comstock, former Republican U.S. congresswoman
Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times
Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic
Jesse Wegman, editor at The New York Times
Eric Posner, author of The Demagogue’s Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump
Michael Signer, author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies
By agreement of the twenty-two contributors, the digital version of The Curse of Demagogues (Spotlight Press, November 2022) has been made available for free on numerous ebook platforms as an educational service to the public. A print version is available on Amazon.
Five Concise Lessons Learned from
The Curse of Demagogues
As modern and ancient history teaches, demagogues are the agents of destruction that debilitate and dismantle democracies.
Once in high office, demagogues become intoxicated with power and descend into authoritarianism in order to retain power.
Trump is the first demagogue in two and a half centuries of American history to obtain the Oval Office. The turmoil and trauma of the past seven years is singularly explained by the fact that American gatekeeping system did not successfully counteract his rise.
Democracies without strong ethical gatekeeping systems ultimately succumb to demagogues and authoritarians.
To restore our democracy, we must defend it against demagogues by strengthening gatekeeping systems within political parties, the media, and the U.S. Congress (powers of impeachment, conviction, and disqualification from future office) and through vigorous civics and ethics education K-12 and beyond.
Five Additional Key Ideas from
The Curse of Demagogues
Citizens of democracies must understand what demagogues are and how to prevent them from obtaining political power because this species of political actors is well-known to corrupt and ultimately dismantle healthy democracies.
Demagogues debilitate democracies in a two-step process well-known to political philosophers since ancient Greece and Athens. First, they foster division and distrust among the people as a means of obtaining power. Second, once in office, the demagogue devolves into an authoritarian who subverts the government, corrupting and disabling the democracy itself to retain power. As Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 1, these talented, fearmongering orators achieve elected power by manipulating and dividing the people, “commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
Demagogues are as ancient as democracy itself, and, historically, watchful gatekeepers prevent them from seizing the bully pulpit and winning the public trust. Examples of gatekeepers include elected and appointed officials, judges, community leaders, and the media, but the most important gatekeepers are political parties. In our system of government, each party has the crucial duty of defending the Constitution and democratic norms against demagogues.
Donald Trump started out as a demagogue, and, as the recent January 6 Committee hearings demonstrate, he slid deep into authoritarianism, orchestrating an aggressive multifaceted campaign to overturn a free and fair election. What the United States and the world have witnessed over the past seven years since Trump announced his run for president is precisely the process of democratic deterioration that takes place when gatekeepers neglect to fulfill their duty to keep demagogues out of the executive pipeline.
The enemy of democracy is not a Democrat or Republican. The enemy of democracy is a demagogue.
From the Introduction
“To understand the system flaws that enabled Trump to win the presidency, we must first acknowledge a fundamental principle that governs the operation of democracies. Demagogues are as ancient as democracy itself, and, historically, watchful gatekeepers have worked to keep them from the bully pulpit and the public trust.
“What these insights mean for American democracy today is that political, media, and education leaders must unite to keep demagogues out of the presidential pipeline . . . The enemy of democracy is not a Democrat or Republican. It is a demagogue.”
From the Essays
“There have been two occasions in American history when the fate of the republic was placed at risk. The first was the Civil War . . . The second was the Great Depression . . . We are currently on the cusp of a third serious challenge to our republican roots, which has emerged in the person of the first full-scale demagogue who was elected president . . . This is the chief reason why the looming election is the most important political event of our lifetime . . . This is an election to decide whether we wish to remain the American republic.”
JOSEPH J. ELLIS
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian
“How many injuries to American democracy can my Republican Party tolerate, excuse and champion? It is elementary to have to say so, but for democracy to work one side must be prepared to accept defeat. If the only acceptable outcome is for your side to win, and a loser simply refuses to lose, then America is imperiled.”
Former Republican U.S. Senator
“My fellow Republicans, stop fearing this dangerous and diminished man.”
Former Republican U.S. Congresswoman
“The enemy of democracy is not a Democrat or Republican. It is a demagogue.”
Psychiatrist and Historian
Email Eli Merritt at firstname.lastname@example.org for a PDF of the book.