Before the Constitutional Convention, Madison undertook an extraordinarily thorough study of various forms of government. How might the Constitution protect us from what Aristotle called “the insolence of demagogues”?
Among the defects of ancient and modern republics, Madison wrote, were “popular assemblages, so quickly formed, so susceptible of contagious passions, so exposed to the misguidance of eloquent and ambitious leaders, and so apt to be tempted by the facility of forming interested majorities, into measures unjust and oppressive to the minor parties.”
Which brings us back to Donald Trump. No one would mistake Mr. Trump for eloquent, but he is a highly effective communicator in a political culture that is now almost indistinguishable from the reality TV culture from which he emerged. But the Trump phenomenon isn’t just about coarsening and stupidity: His political practices are precisely what the founders feared and Lincoln warned against.
The founders, knowing history and human nature, took great care to devise a system that would prevent demagogues and those with authoritarian tendencies from rising up in America. That system has been extraordinarily successful. We have never before faced the prospect of a political strongman becoming president.