One of today’s hot topics, in addition to the future of the Republican Party, is why millions of people who live in democracies are willing to be led by a Dear Leader. Below are three contributions to the discussion.
From The New York Review of Books: “Democracy’s Demagogues”
In 1917, when Europe seemed to lie in ruins, Max Weber wrote an influential essay with the misleadingly dull title “Parliament and Government in a Reconstructed Germany.” In it he drew attention to the outbreak of “Caesarism” in nineteenth-century Europe, taking Otto von Bismarck as the prime example of a modern Caesar for Germany (and indeed for the entire continent). How brilliantly, according to Weber, the old Junker had reduced Parliament to a rubber stamp, what devastating use he had made of emergency legislation and popular appeals, how ruthlessly he had expanded the power of Germany and consolidated his own.
You might think that Weber goes on to tell us what a harmful thing this modern Caesarism is and how Parliament and the rule of law must be strengthened as bulwarks against its perils. And he does, but then he starts off on a new and more disquieting tack. Isn’t it possible, he muses, that demagoguery is actually inherent in modern democratic suffrage, just as it was in Periclean Athens? Apart from demagogos, ancient Greek had a dozen other words to describe “people-flattery” of one sort or another. Surely mass democracy had a tendency to Caesarism:
Every kind of direct popular election of the supreme ruler and, beyond that, every kind of political power that rests on the confidence of the masses and not of parliament…lies on the road to these “pure” forms of Caesarist acclamation. In particular, this is true of the position of the President of the United States, whose superiority over parliament derives from his (formally) democratic nomination and election.
When traveling the United States in the election year of 1904, Weber had been much impressed by Teddy Roosevelt’s boisterous campaigning style.
The miracle ingredient by which the demagogos acquires and retains power is what Weber calls “charisma.” It is Weber who first borrowed from the Epistles of Saint Paul the Greek word for “the gift of God’s grace” and gave it a new, entirely secular twist. But even his use of the term retains a heaven-sent aura. The man with charisma is “meant to be.” He comes to fulfill the destiny of the nation; he is the Man on the White Horse in the Book of Revelation. Hegel wrote, when he caught sight of Napoleon riding through Jena the day before the great battle against the Prussian army in 1806, that he had just seen “this World-Soul riding out of town.” That’s charisma.
Curiously then, Weber, this infinitely thoughtful and skeptical observer of human affairs, had come to agree with the mountebank Napoleon III—who named himself emperor of France in 1852—that “the nature of democracy is to personify itself in a man.” When he was consulted about the writing of the Weimar Constitution in 1918–1919, he proposed the direct election of the German president. Charismatic leadership by a single man, he maintained, was essential to cement the people’s loyalty and persuade them to accept the dull impersonal weight of modern bureaucracy, which was both universal and inescapable. Yes, there must also be vigorous political parties and accountability to Parliament. But a dollop of charisma was indispensable.
This might be described as the Weber Wobble, and an apparent exception to the general thesis for which he is celebrated: that the modern world is characterized by a turning away from magical ways of thinking, the once-for-all Entzauberung, or disenchantment. He recognized the necessity of charisma, but he remained uneasy and suspicious of it. He died a year later, in 1920, of the Spanish flu during the great pandemic, aged only fifty-six. If he had lived a couple of years longer, to witness Mussolini’s March on Rome, he would have been uneasier still.
In Men on Horseback, David A. Bell, a professor of history at Princeton, takes Weber’s conjecture a stage further. Democracies, he points out, are particularly suspicious of charismatic leaders:
Yet, paradoxically, the longing for such leaders acquired new importance, and a distinct new shape, during the very same period that witnessed the first stirrings of modern democracy: the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
It was during that period of extraordinary intellectual ferment and then in the great revolutions that washed across much of the Western world between 1775 and 1820 that the powerful forms of political charisma we are familiar with today emerged. The coming of democracy transformed the relationship between the people and their leaders, and the personal magnetism of the leader electrified that relationship. Far from representing a backsliding toward older forms of government, the new Caesar, adored by the masses and personifying the new nation, was intrinsic to the modern world.
In fact, one might argue, it is only in our own time that we can see most clearly how it all works. The leader’s rallies, his broadcasts, his photo opportunities, his tweets—these do not simply decorate the serious business of governing; they are part and parcel of it. True, in the past and perhaps in the present too, charismatic leaders have often threatened constitutional orders, but they were crucial to the initial creation of those orders, not only by engineering the rupture with the ancien régime but also by bonding the public to this strange new world. The charismatic leader breaks the rules not just because, he claims, the rules are harmful to the people, but because breaking the rules shows that he has charisma; he is beyond good and evil, and beyond a lot of other boring stuff too. . . .
From Scientific American: “The Shared Psychosis of [a Leader] and His Loyalists”
The violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building last week, incited by [the nation’s president], serves as the grimmest moment in one of the darkest chapters in the nation’s history. Yet the rioters’ actions—and [their leader’s] own role in, and response to, them—come as little surprise to many, particularly those who have been studying the president’s mental fitness and the psychology of his most ardent followers since he took office.
One such person is Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist and president of the World Mental Health Coalition. . . . Scientific American asked Lee to comment on the psychology behind [the president’s] destructive behavior, what drives some of his followers—and how to free people from his grip . . .
Scientific American: What attracts people to [him]? What is their animus or driving force?
Lee: The reasons are multiple and varied, but in my recent public-service book, Profile of a Nation, I have outlined two major emotional drives: narcissistic symbiosis and shared psychosis. Narcissistic symbiosis refers to the developmental wounds that make the leader-follower relationship magnetically attractive. The leader, hungry for adulation to compensate for an inner lack of self-worth, projects grandiose omnipotence—while the followers, rendered needy by societal stress or developmental injury, yearn for a parental figure. When such wounded individuals are given positions of power, they arouse similar pathology in the population that creates a “lock and key” relationship.
“Shared psychosis”—which is also called “folie à millions” [“madness for millions”] when occurring at the national level or “induced delusions”—refers to the infectiousness of severe symptoms that goes beyond ordinary group psychology. When a highly symptomatic individual is placed in an influential position, the person’s symptoms can spread through the population through emotional bonds, heightening existing pathologies and inducing delusions, paranoia and propensity for violence—even in previously healthy individuals. The treatment is removal of exposure. . . .
From conservative columnist Michael Gerson of The Washington Post: “The Rot Has Reached the Roots”
The dominant note of the day was . . . cowardice. The case presented by the House impeachment managers was so compelling and overwhelming that the extent of Republican cravenness was highlighted in neon. Republicans who knew better tried to hide behind thin technicalities. And most Republican senators did not seem to know better. In the end, we witnessed a historic collapse of moral and political leadership. And it was no less tragic for being expected. . . .
If T___pism were merely a set of proposals, there could be an antithesis. But the movement fully revealed by the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol is united by a belief that the White, Christian America of its imagination is on the verge of destruction, and that it must be preserved by any means necessary. This is less a political philosophy than a warped religious belief. There can be no compromise in a culture war. There can be no splitting of differences at Armageddon.
What has emerged within the Republican Party is a debate on the value of democracy itself. In the traditional American view, the democratic process has an essential nobility. It does not always produce the results we seek, yet, in the long run, it protects the rights we value. But the T___pian view of democracy is purely instrumental. With the stakes of politics so high — with socialists, multiculturalists and child rapists (as the QAnon fabulists would have it) intent on destroying American society — outcomes are the only things that really matter. Not truth. Not civility. Not electoral procedure. Just the gaining and maintenance of power.
A loss of faith in democratic structures does not lead to anarchy. It leads people to invest their hopes in someone who promises to defend their fragile way of life. In a January 2020 survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, more than half of Republicans agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” More than 40 percent agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” This is as close as political theory comes to a mathematical principle: Tribalism plus desperation equals authoritarian thinking.
From one perspective, it is absurd that so many Americans have invested their hopes for the preservation of civilization in a fool. But [he] has been effective in promoting the tribalism of White grievance, as well as desperation about the fate of America. And, unlike any other president, he was happy to step into an authoritarian role, attempting to maintain power through intimidation and violence.
Can the [Republican Party] really have a productive debate between people who believe in democracy and those who have lost patience for it? Between those who view politics as a method to secure rough justice in a fallen world, and those who view it as a holy crusade against scheming infidels? Between those who try to serve conservative political ideals and those who engage (in [Senator] Sasse’s immortal words) in “the weird worship of one dude”?
As it stands, I am skeptical. There are scattered outposts of Republican sanity . . . But in most of the [party], the rot has reached the roots.
PS: A quote from economist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)
A degree of arrested spiritual and mental development is, in practical effect, no bar against entrance into public office. Indeed, a degree of puerile exuberance coupled with a certain truculent temper and boyish cunning is likely to command something of popular admiration and affection.