The paradox of Trump’s charisma

(Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images.)

Donald Trump has a lot of charisma.

Let me finish. I’m not talking about charisma in the colloquial sense of being charming, although he has charmed millions of people. I am referring to a famous leadership style described by German sociologist Max Weber, who described three forms of authority or leadership: traditional, legal-rational, and charismatic.

In traditional societies, monarchs derive their authority from custom. In modern societies, most leaders, whether elected or not, are chosen on the basis of their qualifications and expertise, and their authority is prescribed by law. Charismatic leaders bring something else to the equation: an inner quality that commands loyalty and even adoration.

The ancient Greeks used the word “charisma” to denote a divine gift or grace. Weber secularized it to signify a quality that inspires intense following. “Men do not obey [a charismatic leader] by virtue of tradition or status,” Weber observed, “but because they believe in him.” I suspect Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake isn’t a close student of Weber, but she gets the idea pretty well when she talks about Trump’s “BDE.” you can look for this.

One of the paradoxes of charismatic leadership is that the leader’s illegitimacy – in legal, rational or traditional terms – can have the effect of strengthening his hold on his followers. This dynamic has been at the heart of Trump’s warping of the right. If the man cannot live up to the traditional, moral, rational, or legal standards that conservatives once assigned to leadership, then it is the fault of the man’s failing to measure test.

If you’re immune to Trump’s charms, you’ve probably tried arguing with someone who adores the man. The more you insist that their faith is irrational or otherwise unwarranted, the more intense their devotion becomes.

And when the system of laws confronts the charismatic leader, its supporters see it as proof not only of its superiority, but of the illegitimacy of the system.

When the FBI investigated Hillary Clinton, Trump supporters said it proved her corruption. But when the FBI investigates Trump, that’s proof of FBI corruption. If “the system” – or “the establishment” – can’t stand the man, the system is to blame. When the problem is the alleged mishandling of classified documents by anyone other than Trump or his underlings, that’s a serious problem. But when it is Trump who is in the crosshairs, the outrage is the existence of classified material. Therefore, Republican Rep. Bob Good’s preferred solution is simply to “Just declassify everything.”

Moreover, thanks to the magic of psychological transfer, the criticism of charismatic leaders metamorphoses into an attack on all those who love him. Hence the Trump paradox. When he is most indefensible, that is precisely when the irrationality of his defenders becomes most intense.

This intensity often takes on an almost religious character. “Donald Trump is the MLK of the working class and Christians. No wonder the FBI is persecuting him too,” headlines one. recent post from the camp of the acolytes.

If charisma is a kind of divine grace, then insulting the charismatic leader is a kind of sacrilege. Following the FBI’s search of Trump’s home, Charlie Kirk, a docile priest in Trump’s personality cult declared“It wasn’t just a raid on Trump, it was a raid on your values. It was a raid on you. Mar-a-Lago is where Trump did some of his best work in as president, Kirk explained, so the research was “a profanation of the conservative movement!” It’s a weird form of conservatism that says a legal warrant has no authority in holy ground.

It should be noted that just as devotion to charismatic leaders can take on the flavor of religious devotion, opposition to them can too, which is why the rhetoric against Trump can be as far ahead of the facts as his defenses. Demagoguery, which Weber identified as a common form of charismatic leadership, has always been the Achilles’ heel of democracy. But the anarchy of the demagogue is not the only threat; a weakening of the rule of law by defeating the demagogue can also be a danger.

The only way out of this mess is to pass. Our system was expressly designed to withstand the constraints of popular passion. As the fortunately uncharismatic Calvin Coolidge said, he who has the law on his side is a majority. This is the only type of majority our legitimate rulers should serve now.

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