Essay: The Rise (and Fall) of a Charismatic Leader in a Post-Truth Era
Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. Historian Timothy Snyder characterizes our past president and describes his followers vividly in his essay, “The American Abyss: Trump, the Mob and What Comes Next.” Other scholars and journalists are publishing well-researched and cogently argued work on the nature of the political upheaval we have just lived through and warned that it may not be over
The rise of the charismatic leader is not a new subject, although it is being analyzed in a new context today. When I was in graduate school in the 1970s, scholars and critics of mass culture (as it was then called) worried about the rise of the charismatic leader. This leader would succeed because he (it was always he) would take over the mass media, meaning television, and mesmerize the audience into following his evil ways. This belief was fed by visions of Hitler’s rallies, especially as portrayed in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. Her film documented the Nazi Congress of Nuremberg, attended by more than 700,000 sieg-heil saluters. (If you haven’t seen it, you should. It will send shivers thru your soul.)
Fearing the rise of a charismatic leader 50 years ago meant worry about the political potential of mass communications—the Big Three broadcast television networks, the archetypal NBC, CBS and ABC. A charismatic leader would monopolize all three networks for his messages, which would convince us to follow him like sheep.
We survived that fear. Partly, as we can see now, because there was no Trumpish figure around to try it. Broadcast networks didn’t enable such a charlatan. Nor did the mass expansion and fracturing of the cable television audience enable such a plot. If anything, we found the explosion of cable TV in the 1980s and ‘90s encouraging because it splintered that mass audience into many smaller, specialized audiences. Thus, less opportunity for the rise of a charismatic leader through mass media.
Fifty years ago, we didn’t foresee the rise of our current Frankenstein model of mass media: Social media. Splintered, yes, but shambling into a thousand mini-Nuremberg rallies, all shouting Trump 2020. Fed by actual live in-person political rallies that mimicked Hitler at Nuremberg in ways both subtle and vicious.
We (liberals) may think of the ex-president as a clueless, unknowledgeable, intellectually lazy former TV star and a lousy businessman. But the fact remains that he intuitively knew how to use today’s “mass media” to create a mass movement obeying his will and culminating in the January 6 assault on the Capitol. Most unfortunate, his endless repetition of the Big Lie persuaded his followers that the 2020 election was fraudulent. And most of the Republican party in the House and Senate are culpable of perpetuating this Big Lie.
The question of charisma
What exactly is charisma? Patricia Sellers defined it this way in a Fortune article in 1996 (article is behind a paywall). “Charisma is a tricky thing. Jack Kennedy oozed it—but so did Hitler and Charles Manson. Con artists, charlatans, and megalomaniacs can make it their instrument as effectively as the best CEOs, entertainers, and Presidents. Used wisely, it’s a blessing; indulged, it can be a curse. Charismatic visionaries lead people ahead and sometimes astray.”
The concept of charismatic leaders derives from the work of Max Weber, considered a founding father of sociology. His leadership model featured three types of authority: traditional, legal and charismatic. Traditional leaders get their power from custom, and legal ones through bureaucracy, Weber said. But charismatic leaders are created through the cult of personality. Thus, Trump can tell his followers, “trust me,” and they do, pledging allegiance to him rather than to the country and the Constitution.
Some journalists and historians today warn that we bear some responsibility for allowing ourselves to be mesmerized by Trump, by amplifying his power whether we loathed or adored him. Beginning in 2015, we allowed ourselves to chortle over every outrageous tweet and every rally report that proved to us that he was, first, a candidate who would surely fail, and later, that he was a terrible president and a nonstop liar.
Our long history of racism, xenophobia and paranoia
On a January 15 PBS Newshour special, “American Reckoning,” journalist George Packer said, “We have a long history of racism, xenophobia, paranoia…. Not that we supported Trump or agreed with him but we couldn’t take our eyes off him. He’s like a poison that entered our system. …. [we didn’t realize] how completely he’s come to dominate our coverage. Trump is a demagogue, a figure of our democracy.” He was defeated and we should feel good about that, Packer said, since very few countries have been able to get a demagogue out of office.
But that doesn’t mean that the Trump poison is gone. It may just be waiting for the right time to rise again, perhaps in time for the 2022 midterms or the 2024 general election. And the poison might not be personified by someone named Trump. There are other candidates waiting to spew the same poison. The question is whether they will have the power and the charisma to succeed. We’re left with the poison Trump left behind …. and now we have to work our way out of the abyss.
Packer also talked about how, in the last 10 years, he has noticed how in small towns and rural areas, people have lost sources of authority and meaning—their unions, their workplaces, churches and newspapers. They were seeking a sense of identity—and villains—and found them in Donald Trump.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP legal defense and education fund, said on the PBS program that the January 6 assault reminded her of the “waning days of Reconstruction” when there was a violent effort to suppress Black political strength in the South. Later, during violent reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the civil rights era that followed, we told ourselves this was a regional problem. But it wasn’t regional and Donald Trump was an accelerant, she said.
Political consultant Stuart Stevens, a former Republican, said, “The lesson that we used to study in civics classes was that leaders matter.” Fascism was rampant in the 1930s but it didn’t take over here—probably because Roosevelt was president and not Lindbergh. He also noted that, “the poison is just beginning… We have 50, 60 70 million people who believe that they don’t live in a democracy thanks to Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s failure to confront him.” They were ready to disenfranchise millions of Black voters to get their way.
The gamers and the breakers
There are plenty of examples of autocrats—charismatic or not—who are succeeding in other countries (and who are lionized by Trump, who never met an autocrat he didn’t admire). There’s Polish President Andrzej Duda, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who still insists the U.S. election was stolen. And of course, Vladimir Putin. It was encouraging to see thousands of Russians protesting recently against the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, even though thousands were also arrested.
In his essay “The American Abyss,” Snyder says that ”Plato noted a particular risk for tyrants: that they would be surrounded in the end by yes-men and enablers. Aristotle worried that, in a democracy, a wealthy and talented demagogue could all too easily master the minds of the populace. Aware of these risks and others, the framers of the Constitution instituted a system of checks and balances. The point was not simply to ensure that no one branch of government dominated the others but also to anchor in institutions different points of view.”
Snyder divides Republicans into the gamers and the breakers. The gamers want to game the system by taking advantage of “constitutional obscurities, gerrymandering and dark money” to gain and retain power. Mitch McConnell is the leader of that pack. The breakers, personified by Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, want to actually break the system and gain power without democracy. Snyder says the breakers have a strong reason to see Trump disappear: “It is impossible to inherit from someone who is still around. Seizing Trump’s big lie might appear to be a gesture of support. In fact it expresses a wish for his political death.”
Looking at Europe for earlier models, you can find a surprisingly good overview of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 20th century in travel writer Rick Steves’ program, “The Story of Fascism.” The one-hour PBS program describes the rise and fall of fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain, with chilling descriptions of the murderous results of the rise of Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco.
Lessons for us to pursue
What do we learn from looking back at what may seem like a quaint fear of autocracy enabled by mass media? How much should we fear today’s mass social media and the dark internet rabbit hole? The last five years have taught us that—even though there was no rise of a charismatic leader for 50 years—it’s not impossible. Whether through mass audiences viewing a few television networks or through thousands of small groups enabled by Twitter and Facebook, Whatsapp and Telegram, Gab and Rumble, we must continue fearing the rise of a charismatic leader. And do everything in our power to guard against the extension of the chaos we have just lived through.
Democracy is fragile. We can lose it if we don’t protect it.
How do we do that? Here are a few suggestions. Please add your own in the comments or when we post this article on social media.
- Don’t trust people who offer easy answers to complicated problems. Don’t listen to politicians who offer solutions with no details. (Do I need to provide an example?)
- Make fun of autocrats and wannabe charismatic leaders. It drives them crazy.
- Support local news media, subscribe to reputable national media. Dispute lies wherever you see or hear them.
- Fight for new national voting rights legislation that protects and ensures the ability to actually cast a ballot by all American citizens.
- Educate our children and acknowledge our past. Be sure school children learn (in the right manner for their age group) about the history of slavery, the failures of Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws and restriction of voting rights, our treatment of Native Americans; our imprisonment of Japanese-Americans (American citizens) in internment camps during WWII. Also police violence, redlining, job discrimination, etc.
- Establish a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission to review our dismal history of violence and mistreatment of the poor and people of color. Determine methods of reparation and re-education. (I know this is a pipe dream, but it’s a worthy one.)
Thanks so much, Margie, for reading the essay and for your comments.
Thank you so much for posting this essay! I read it all and found it to be such an honest and educational lesson for all of us. I think your suggestion of always exposing your children to the truth (at the appropriate age and time) is the best way to help them see that no person or Country is perfect. We all make mistakes and the strongest , smartest people are those who can admit they made a mistake and then learn from it (not hide it). Another thing that I feel everyone should learn how to do is put yourself in the shoes of those who you disagree with . Respect their right to have their own opinion but demand that they show you the same respect. I’m a firm believer in learning as much as I can about the past in order to be able to live my best life in the future by not repeating my mistakes or the mistakes of others.
Thank you again for your thoughtful and informative essay.
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