The Big Picture: Trump’s Charisma

This is the 13th installment of The Big Picture, a public symposium on what’s at stake in Trump’s America, co-organized by Public Books and NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge. RSVP for The Big Picture event at NYU on November 7, 2017.
Accepting the presidential nomination at the 2016 Republican convention, Donald Trump painted a picture of America in crisis, with “poverty and violence at home” and “war and destruction abroad.” ...

Accepting the presidential nomination at the 2016 Republican convention, Donald Trump painted a picture of America in crisis, with “poverty and violence at home” and “war and destruction abroad.” But, he proclaimed, “I am your voice” and “I alone can fix it.” The fired-up delegates, booing on cue and cheering when prompted, roared in response with chants of “USA!,” “Lock her up!,” “Build the wall!,” and “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Was this the power of charisma? And how long will it last?

It was Max Weber who imported the concept of charisma from its religious meaning of a divinely conferred gift into the sociology of political power. It has since entered everyday vocabulary, as Merriam-Webster reports: first, that of everyday political commentary, to mean “a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure (such as a political leader),” and then, even more widely and vaguely, to signify “a special magnetic charm or appeal,” as in “the charisma of a popular actor.”

If we want to explore its relevance to the present moment, it will best to return to Weber’s usage. His “charisma” brought together a number of features of a particular form of what Weber called Herrschaft—the power to compel people to obey. It differs sharply from two other forms: the “traditional” (where people obey because of age-old laws and customs) and the “rational-legal” (whose authority comes from widely accepted impersonal and impartial rules). These two forms sustain the everyday (alltäglich) order and routines of traditional and bureaucratic life. They contribute to continuity and permanence. Weber saw such order as an essential background for economic growth under capitalism.

Charisma, by contrast, is exceptional and disruptive. It is “specifically extraordinary” (spezifisch ausseralltäglich). It is in the first place, he wrote, highly personal. It is a “certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically extraordinary power or qualities.” These are “not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them, the individual concerned is treated as a leader.” The social relations involved are “purely personal”: the followers have an entirely personal devotion to the leader and this is elicited by, in the words of Christopher Adair-Toteff, “the ‘leader’s’ ability to seem to be able to perform ‘miracles’ or to perform heroic acts.”1 They recognize the personal qualifications and characteristics of the charismatic leader, whom they view as having been chosen, as belonging to God’s grace. The religious analogies are significant. Charisma is linked by Weber with both magic and prophecy, realms where power derives from personal gifts.

And yet, as Weber makes clear, the power is only effective insofar as it is seen to be. The charismatic leader depends on his followers for recognition. Once the followers cease to believe in the leader, the leader’s charismatic power disappears. So charisma, secondly, requires perpetual reanimation. And thirdly, Weber thought, it is temporary, because, like magic, its appeal and its efficacy only last as long as it is seen to be successful. The charismatic leader, Weber wrote, is “the eternally new” and is fated to descend from a “stormy and emotional” beginning to a “slow suffocating death under the weight of material interests.” The emotional bonding resulting from excessive expectations will not long survive the perceived failure to fulfil them.

To what extent has Trump’s exercising of presidential power approximated Weber’s ideal-typical picture of how charisma works?

Charisma is, fourthly, irrational. Like the mystic, the charismatic leader is believed in because his message goes against common knowledge of how the world works, because it rejects and disrupts what is taken for granted, including the everyday pursuit of interests and the impersonal norms governing daily life. Weber thought that this meant that pure charisma rejects economic gain and indeed any type of routine and regulated economic life. (But, as we know, many charismatic leaders have, for a time, been seen as economic saviors: Hitler put Germany back to work and ended hyperinflation, and under Mussolini, as the saying goes, the trains ran on time.)

Finally, we should note that Weber, as social scientist, sought to leave charisma’s moral worth an open question. In fact, he was himself ambivalent about charismatic leadership in politics. Aware of the dangers of demagoguery, he nonetheless valued the role of passion in politics and admired leaders like Pericles, who could display greatness and inspire their followers. Charismatic leaders could resist the ever-growing disenchantment of a graying world that was under the increasing sway of soulless experts and bureaucrats. On the other hand, he also wrote of the charismatic leader as a “demonic” type who appears only in chaotic times. Scholars and commentators have seen historical and contemporary leaders as charismatic in Weber’s sense. Weber himself mentioned Cleon and Napoleon. Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, and Gandhi are often described as charismatic, and Raymond Aron thought that de Gaulle was the perfect embodiment of Weberian charisma.

What, then, less than a year into his presidency, are we to say concerning Donald Trump? Before going any further we should note that what Weber gives us is a sketch, a caricature. What he called a pure “ideal type” is abstracted from real cases in which, to get their way, political leaders draw on multiple sources of power: the threat of force, tradition, legal authority, economic muscle, incentives, negotiating skill, coalitional alliances, and so on, with more or less success. So our question should be: to what extent has Trump’s exercising of presidential power approximated Weber’s ideal-typical picture of how charisma works?


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The answer is: remarkably closely. He has not shown himself to be adept at using the various sources of power just indicated; least of all has he been successful at political deal-making. But he has succeeded at being exceptional and disruptive. Just compare him—his persona and demeanor—with the 16 Republican presidential contenders, whom he felled like ninepins (and with most previous Republican presidents and the current vice president) and who are all what Weber would have called alltäglich—everyday, ordinary, and order-sustaining. Indeed, by historical standards, those defeated candidates are unusually so: remarkably mediocre, small-minded, and narrowly focused.

In office, Trump has disdained Weber’s other two forms of power, which are both order-preserving: traditional and legal-rational. He has bypassed and subverted presidential traditions. As a president he is unprecedented, in numerous ways. He has refused to release his taxes, retained his lucrative business interests, communicated to the people via tweets, run White House business chaotically, installed his family into the administration, surrounded himself with generals, exhibited systematic hostility to the press, rejected compromises with political opposition, brought far-right forces into the mainstream, advanced the coarsening of public discourse, and, in sum, seemingly adopted the advice of his former chief strategist Steve Bannon to “deconstruct the administrative state.”

Bannon’s grandiose project (inspired, apparently, by Lenin) is also, of course, nothing less than the deconstruction of legal-rational authority, of which we have seen some significant instances. Thus, Trump’s appointments to head administrative agencies have been directly subversive of their functions: he has, rather systematically, selected persons who are either opposed to the agencies’ missions or have violated the laws they are meant to implement, and he has left many other important leadership positions unfilled. And he has revealed his, shall we say, “flexible” attitude toward impersonal and impartial application of laws by pardoning a sheriff who was found guilty of doing exactly the opposite; by his encouragement of rough treatment of suspects by the police; and by his attempts, so far unsuccessful, to obstruct the investigation of Russian tampering with his election.

Charisma, Weber insisted, is inherently personal. Given the public’s longstanding familiarity with Trump as a TV celebrity and given the extravagant narcissism of his personality, when applied to him, the term already seems drastically understated. Add to all this his astonishingly hubristic claim that “I alone can fix it,” regarding Middle-Eastern terrorism and a host of other issues, and you have a clear instance of what a 21st-century cult of personality looks like.

Lying is as ancient as politics itself, but leading a multitude who follow you in discarding any concern with truth and truthfulness is something else.

So far, the call has been answered with what looks like devotion from a sturdy 35 percent of the electorate. But it does need to be continually renewed, hence the singularly unpresidential ongoing resort to deliberately divisive campaign rallies. But how long can such “collective effervescences” keep the flame of devotion burning, if the promised successes cease to materialize or, perhaps more to the point, are explicitly seen to cease by his fanbase?

Which brings us to Weber’s linking of charisma to irrationality. Here Weber’s considerable powers of prophecy were insufficient. For he believed that the modern world was becoming more and more rational across all spheres of life—though punctuated by charismatic interludes, some chaotic, even demonic—a process in which experts of all kinds played an ever more central role. It was beyond his imagining (and not only his) that the government and administration of a major state—of the most powerful state in the world—would succumb to the leadership of a charismatic figure for whom the very norms of rationality are, in key respects, irrelevant. To begin to take the measure of this development, we need to turn to another concept—bullshit—and another thinker, the philosopher Henry Frankfurt, for whom “the essence of bullshit” is “lack of connection to a concern with truth.”

For the bullshitter, unlike the liar, “the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest”; he is “unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.” The liar intends to deceive us about what is true; the bullshitter does not care. Many make much of President Trump’s lies, but we need to grasp the significance of his bullshitting. Lying, after all, is as ancient as politics itself, but leading a multitude who follow you in discarding any concern with truth and truthfulness is something else. With policy-making increasingly disconnected from expert knowledge and administrative experience, this has brought a new level of uncertainty into our politics, one that is all the more dangerous as the globe warms.

Can we then, following Weber, foresee a descent from the “stormy and emotional” beginning of the early Trump presidency to its “slow suffocating death under the weight of material interests”? There is no good reason to think that a Republican administration under Trump will advance the material interests of that portion of his followers who hope for jobs and industrial renewal rather than those of the most advantaged, who expect deregulation, a booming stock market, and lower taxes.

We can always speculate about how and when lack of success with either group will lead to the withdrawal of the recognition by which charisma lives and dies. But we also need to consider the possibility that for a significant number of core followers and supporters it may not—that their material interests will not weigh heavily enough with them to be decisive. Perhaps the charismatic power of the bigoted successor to the United States’s first black president, a man who bans refugees and wants to build a wall against immigrants, rests on other foundations.


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Usually the successes attributed to charismatic leaders by their followers have been multiple: not just material, economic advancement but also the symbolic rewards of status and the assurance of being part of an imagined community. Most commentators agree that Trump’s base of support is a white working class that has lost out from globalization and that looks to him with the misplaced hope that he can restore the economic basis, the jobs, and opportunities of the world they have lost.

In fact, his base extends across the country and across social classes, but the common denominator is that it is predominantly white, and it is his appeal to “whiteness” that seems to underlie his charismatic appeal. Overt racism and nationalism are once again central in American political life, as more moderate Republican politicians resort to racism and nationalism to avoid being ousted from the right in primaries, often in gerrymandered constituencies. Thus, the anti-diversity sentiment behind many of Trump’s signature slogans—Make America Great Again, Build the Wall—has become part of the Republican Party’s brand.

In this way, we are witnessing what Weber called the “routinization of charisma”—where the leader’s message becomes normalized by shaping traditions and acquiring bureaucratic form, and thus Trumpism will, in many respects, survive the man himself. The longer Trump’s personal charismatic connection with his followers lasts, the more likely it is that Trumpism as a movement will plant deep roots. Therefore, our most urgent priority is undermining his appeal to voters before the 2018 congressional elections: through showing Trump to be the conman that he is; through exposing the hollowness of his claims to be helping the working poor; through proposing better, more inclusive alternative policies.

For his hard-core followers, the charismatic bond may well be, as Trump has boasted, unbreakable. For the rest, who support him with varying degrees of unease, it is vital to expose his racism relentlessly, to counter the symbolic value of whiteness—the long-term hegemony of which is, in any case, demographically doomed—and to develop better communal narratives. Only then will there be a chance to put the brakes on America’s disastrous experiment with authoritarian charismatic governance. icon

  1. Christopher Adair-Toteff, Max Weber’s Sociology of Religion (Mohr Siebeck, 2016), p. 36.
Featured Image: Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally at the Prescott Valley Event Center in Prescott Valley, Arizona (October, 2016). Photograph by Gage Skidmore / Flickr