Max Weber explains Campaign 2016: we want a charismatic leader to restore America

Summary: Past posts discussed the role of long-suppressed populism in the rise of Trump. But there are deeper forces at work, described a century ago by the philosopher Max Weber. Authority in America has passed from charismatic leaders to traditional leaders to bureaucrats (like Hillary and Jeb), as the Republic’s legitimacy drains away. Now comes the next cycle as a new generation of charismatic leaders arises. It offers both large risks and opportunities for America. Understanding is the first step to a better America. {1st of 2 posts today.}


There has been endless guessing about the sources of Trump’s appeal, such as this by Glenn Thrush at Politico in November:

Trump may be the ultimate it’s-all-about-me candidate, but the piercing paradox of 2016 is that it actually isn’t about him — but about his ability to capture the mood of his voters, and that, more than anything, explains his pundit-defying durability.

While accurate, he sees the trees but not the forest. Whether Trump wins or loses, his success so far shows the rise of larger forces than those of politics-as-usual. From one perspective, this is the resurgence of American populism — for much the same reasons as its rise in the late 1800s: slowing growth, rising inequality, and high rates of immigration. Jonathan Chait reports that Trump has realized the appeal of populism and is adjusting his campaign to better tap it (Chait’s article is evidence that the commentariat has at last seen the rise of populism).

But there are deeper forces at work. Consider the planned 2016 contest for the Presidency, with the party leaders preparing Clinton vs. Bush. Two elderly boring mediocre candidates, both devoid of actual accomplishment, both running by right of succession in their respective political dynasties. In desperation Democratic Party loyalists turned to Sanders, another elderly politician advocating a grab-bag of nostrums almost as old as he is (for an analysis of the Democrat’s exhaustion see “Nothing Left” by Adolph Reed Jr. in Harper’s (“The long, slow surrender of American liberals”). On the Right, desperate loyalists turned to billionaires’ boy-toys — wind-up pols like the Rubio-bot.

This failure of the first- and second-tier candidates reveals that we have a tired system that has burned through its legitimacy. Polls confirm this, such as Gallup’s Confidence in Institutions survey that shows ugly low numbers for the Republic’s institutions (except the military, hardly a comforting signal). As Glenn Greenwald described the prospect of the 2016 before the insurgencies of Trump and Sanders…

“… the 2016 election would vividly underscore how the American political class functions: by dynasty, plutocracy, fundamental alignment of interests masquerading as deep ideological divisions, and political power translating into vast private wealth and back again. The educative value would be undeniable: somewhat like how the torture report did, it would rub everyone’s noses in exactly those truths they are most eager to avoid acknowledging.”

To understand the rise of Trump — and probably his equally-surprising successors — we must look at the well-springs of political authority. While political power sometimes “grows out of the barrel of a gun” (Mao), more often it comes from people’s relationship with their leaders. Force is seldom needed when there are more powerful sources of legitimacy. But they too have a life cycle of rise, fall, and renewal.

Max Weber

Max Weber explains the rise of Trump

From Max Weber’s lecture “Politics as a Vocation” at Munich University in 1918.

There is the authority of the extraordinary and personal gift of grace (charisma), the absolutely personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation, heroism, or other qualities of individual leadership. This is ‘charismatic’ domination, as exercised by the prophet or — in the field of politics — by the elected war lord, the plebiscitarian ruler, the great demagogue, or the political party leader.

…Men do not obey him by virtue of tradition or statute, but because they believe in him. If he is more than a narrow and vain upstart of the moment, the leader lives for his cause and ‘strives for his work.’ The devotion of his disciples, his followers, his personal party friends is oriented to his person and to its qualities. Charismatic leadership has emerged in all places and in all historical epochs.

…Political leadership in the form of the free ‘demagogue’ who grew from the soil of the city state is of greater concern to us…

Here Weber describes his powerful insight that the origin of a society’s leadership first comes from charismatic rulers who capture our hearts and minds — the Founders, Jackson, and Lincoln. Authority then passes to those who rule on the basis of tradition (trusted if unexciting), which eventually becomes bureaucratic — obeyed but unloved (see Wikipedia for details). That leads to the deligimization we see today, followed by the rise of new charismatic rulers as spring follows winter.

It’s one kind of life cycle for societies, and aptly describes America since the Founding. See the passage at the end of this post for a more detailed description of this — and what it means for America. I urge you to read it.

Key to Leadership

What comes next?

“There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
— Attributed to Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, a leader of the February Revolution of 1848.

Trump is breaking new ground in modern American politics (or more accurately, rediscovering long-lost paths). So his policies and tunes are a work in progress — trial and error, as aptly described in “The Secret of Donald Trump’s Charisma” by Jesse Walker at Reason — “Watching the candidate find his positions is like watching a man tune a radio”.  As Chait explained, Trump is closing the large gap between what GOP candidates advocate and Republicans want (as is Sanders, on a smaller scale).

Contrast this with Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush — candidates of the establishment, running by right of dynastic succession:- bureaucratic authority, now exhausted. And Sanders — an elder statesman in the Democratic Party attempting to revitalize its traditional values.

No matter if Trump wins or loses, the populist forces that have broken out in America will not end in November. Other ambitious people will attempt to tap them, learning from Trump’s campaign to do so more successfully. These might come from the Left as well as the Right, or have heterodox positions that redraw the political spectrum (as Trump might do).

While we call them “leaders”, we tend to follow people who best express our fears and hopes. They win by mirroring who we want to be. Much depends on whether they mirror our dark side vs. our bright side. We each get to contribute to that choice, by our actions — or inaction.

“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”
Speech by union leader Nicholas Klein (1918).

Other posts about Trump and the new populism

See all posts about Trump and the New Populism, especially these…

  1. In August I wrote The Donald Trump revolution, dismissed as all revolts are in the beginning.
  2. Trump’s hope: a recession might put him in the White House.
  3. The four keys to a possible Trump victory.
  4. Trump, not Sanders, is the revolutionary.
  5. Important: Next phase of the Trump revolution: rise of the new populism.
  6. Max Weber explains how charismatic leaders replace bureaucratic ones.
  7. Next: Hillary Clinton, the establishment’s nomination for leader of the US bureaucracy

For More Information

See the Wikipedia entry about Weber’s three forms of authority.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For ideas about what you can do see Reforming America: steps to new politics. See these posts about setting the stage for Campaign 2016…

  1. From March 2014: Stand by for political realignment in America!
  2. Written in July 2008 about Obama, who became a damp squib: Does America need a charismatic President?
  3. Diagnosing the Eagle: Alienation.
  4. The bitter fruits of our alienation from America.
  5. Scary lessons for America from pre-revolutionary France.
  6. The psychopathic leaders of America.

About charisma and the legitimacy of governments

To see our future see this from Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind

Closing of the American Mind
Available at Amazon.

In America charisma is not just a description but something good that has to do with leadership. It even seems to confer an extralegal title to leadership by virtue of “something special” inhering in the leader. Although Weber was thinking of Moses and Buddha, or of Napoleon, the gang leader formally suits his definition of charisma.

… In passages deeply influenced by Nietzsche, he analyzes the state as a relation of domination of man by man, founded on legitimate violence — that is, violence that is considered to be legitimate. Men inwardly accept being dominated if they have certain beliefs. There is no more foundation to legitimacy than the inner justification the dominated make to themselves in order to accept the violence of those who dominate them.

These justifications are, according to Weber, of three kinds: traditional, rational, and charismatic. Some men submit because that is the way it has always been; others consent to obey competent civil servants who follow rationally established rules; and others are enchanted by the extraordinary grace of an individual.

Of the three, charismatic legitimacy is the most important. No matter what conservatives may think, traditions had a beginning that was not traditional. They had a founder who was not a conservative or a traditionalist. The fundamental values informing that tradition were his creation. The tradition is the continuing half-life of the charmed moment when a happy few could live on the heights of inspiration with the creator. Tradition adjusts that inspiration to the ordinary, universal motives of man, such as greed and vanity; it routinizes the charisma. It is what it is because of that original impulse.

Charisma is the …splendid form of legitimacy. The rational is not informed by charisma, and the civil servants — bureaucrats — are therefore unable to make real decisions or take responsibility. They cannot … establish ends. Mere competence can only serve already established goals and decide according to the established rules. It must be at least supplemented by charismatic leadership in order to be pointed in the right, or any, direction. So again charisma comes out on top.

… Once one plunges into the abyss, there is no assurance whatsoever that equality, democracy or socialism will be found on the other side.… But the conditions of value creation, particularly its authoritative and religious or charismatic character, would seem to militate against democratic rationalism. The sacred roots of community are contrary to the rights of individuals and liberal tolerance.

… Weber’s charismatic leader is from the rational statesmen looked to by Locke, Montesquieu, Smith and the Federalist. They strive for ends grasped by reason and self-evidently grounded in nature. No values, no creative visions are required for them to see what all reasonable men should see …

Weber, on the other hand, denies the rationality of the “values” posited by {leaders}; they are “decisions,” not “deliberations,” imposed on a chaotic world by powerful personalities, “worldviews” or “world-interpretations” with no foundation other than the selves of the {people}. …They are acts that are primarily of the will, and constitute the self and the world at the same time. Such acts must be unreasonable; they are based on nothing. In a chaotic universe, reason is unreasonable because self-contradiction is inevitable. The prophet becomes the pure model of the statesman — with very radical consequences.

… Charisma is a formula for extremism and immoderation. Moreover, the leader must have followers, so there is every temptation for him to act out his role as they define it.

… Just over the horizon, when Weber wrote, lay Hitler. He was a leader, Fuehrer, who was certainly neither traditional nor rational-bureaucratic. He was the mad, horrible parody of the charismatic leader— the demagogue — hoped for by Weber.

… Weber was a good man of decent political instincts who would never have had anything but disgust at and contempt for Hitler. What he wanted was a moderate corrective to the ills of German politics … But when one ventures out into the vast spaces opened up by Nietzsche, it is hard to set limits. Measure and moderation are the real aliens there.

—————– End excerpt —————–

3 thoughts on “Max Weber explains Campaign 2016: we want a charismatic leader to restore America”

  1. The majority of people need a manager. That is why there is a high worker:manager ratio in our business world. The majority WANT a manager – that is why they do not strive, inside or outside their workplace, for advances after a certain point. Truth is, management is a hassle and the benefits come at a personal and family price. And the best managers do not force but inspire. They are charismatic. We work hard because they cause us to WANT to work hard. But the ratio is still only 6:1 to 12:1. We need, want and have a lot of them.

    That being said, the voters of America both need and want a “manager” who inspires them in the political realm, too. They need and want someone like that at the very top as well as at the intermediate levels. And with a population of some 360 million, there should be millions of positive, inspirational leaders walking around. Yet look at the current, high-profile Presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz. Out of all 50 Governors, the hundreds of Congressmen and Senators, thousands of mayors, out of all the ex-military colonels and generals, private enterprise CEOs and Directors, those four are the best that can be found and convinced to seek the highest position on the planet?

    The quality and quantity of Presidential aspirants is bizarre. Either the world is full of incompetents, crooks and idiots who have sleep-walked through life, or there is some filter between the electorate and political office. Something stops good, shrewd negotiators and visionaries from entering the political arena.

    Could the two-party American system be the problem? Could it be that the entrenched control and limit those who might join to be only the status quo, non-threatening inner clique? Is what is needed is the ability of a third party, rallying around an outsider with different views and supporters to grow and displace one of the main two?

    You really have to ask yourself why the current four are the best that the American population, living the best standard of life on the planet with the most dominant economy and military in the history of the planet, is offering. Is it really “can offer” or is it “is allowed to offer”? Either way, it is a sad situation that is not likely to lead us to a Star Trek future of universal human health, wealth and harmony.

  2. Great article.

    IMO Trump’s charisma is a very specific kind. Besides his actually pretty substantial media and brand-positioning experience, he attracts attention for pissing on those who his audience thinks need pissing on. For the time being, this excuses just about anything he does, and he knows it. I could see him fitting the mold of the businessman-populist (Berlusconi?)

    In terms of Bernie being a faux socialist … besides the faux in the bait-and-switch Democrat-party-sheepdog sense, there’s a bit of a language ambiguity. I think in U.S. English, “socialist” to a lot of people means what “social democrat” means in International English. In other words, maybe, what the Democratic party once stood for.

    In both cases, the story our each of our 2 major parties is selling is a bit fraudulent, and that’s a pretty powerful driving force once it comes out. I definitely didn’t expect this a year ago.

  3. Pingback: Links 2/19/16 | Mike the Mad Biologist

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