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We love Trump – The dangers of charismatic authority & how to avoid them

Donald Trump’s celebrity status and super human appeal, to some fans, leads them to support everything he says without pausing to reflect. This is typical with followers of charismatic leaders. Luckily, Max Weber, a German sociologist, defined a concept that helps us understand this problem and its solutions.

What is charismatic authority?

In the early 20th century, a new type of leader emerged that motivated German sociologist Max Weber to define three types of leadership that can still explain much of what is happening today.

The invention of the radio allowed politicians to transmit their speeches to millions of people, which helped some of them win over the people by the sheer force of their charisma. Charisma had always been a helpful characteristic of successful politicians, but now people were able to win elections on charisma alone.

The new charismatic leaders had a strong influence on their followers, which often lead to fundamental changes in society. From Adolf Hitler to Mahatma Gandhi, charisma motivated both great constructive and destructive changes.

Long before Hitler, Max Weber understood that the possibility of leading by charisma had changed the world forever. To explain these changes, he defined three types of authority:

  1. Traditional authority. This is the medieval kingdom. Leaders rule by the power of their pedigree.
  2. Legal authority. This is the modern bureaucracy. Leaders rule by the power of the constitution in which the people trust.
  3. Charismatic authority. People follow charismatic leaders because they believe in their heroism, their special abilities, their superior character, or similar overwhelmingly positive characteristics.

Max Weber defined charisma as “[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 exceptional powers or qualities.” He continues, “Men do not obey [the charismatic ruler] by virtue of tradition or statute, but because they believe in him.”

It is unimportant whether charismatic leaders actually possess the qualities that their followers attribute to them, whether they follow good or bad goals, or whether the majority considers a leader charismatic.

In democratic societies, charismatic authority can be dangerous. When supporters consider the charisma of their leader more important than the legal structure, they are likely to support an erosion of the democratic structures in favor of more power for the leader.

The 20th and the 21th centuries have seen a rise of charismatic leaders. In medieval times, authority was mostly based on tradition and legitimized by the divine right of kings. With the invention of the radio and television, leaders could transport their charisma over long distances. Politically, this led to a fight between systems based on legal authority (democracy) and charisma (mostly fascism). Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were charismatic leaders.

What are the dangers of charismatic authority?

Most of the dangers of the charismatic movement relate to the power of charisma to motivate people to do things they would not normally do. When people believe their leader is superhuman, they will do whatever he or she says, even if it conflicts their own beliefs.

This characteristic leads to three main dangers of charismatic authorities:

1. Charismatic leaders are unable to share success, power, and the spotlight

It is difficult for charismatic leaders to maintain their authority. Since the support of their followers is based on belief in the leader’s greatness, any signs of imperfection can erode their basis of power.

When some or all group members question the leader’s superior qualifications, the leader loses support more quickly than other types of leaders. Since people might have done things in support of the leader that they would not have done on their own, disappointment can be more significant than with other types of leadership.

Charismatic leaders must clearly be the best person for the job – always and in any situation. Therefore they often engage in a cult of personality and become ultra-sensitive to criticism. To maintain their superior image, they must make all important decisions, they have to receive credit for all ideas, and they deserve to be in the spotlight all the time – at least it has to look like it.

2. Charismatic leaders are prone to narcissism

Charismatic leaders often eventually take the praise of their followers too seriously and show narcissistic traits. They believe too strongly in their own qualities and do things that have no chance of success. Criticism looks like disobedience to them, and they are prone to overreact when they are questioned. When charismatic leaders find a new enemy, they often pass their hatred along to their followers.

Charismatic leaders frequently exchange people in key positions and prefer leaving positions vacant to filling them with people they don’t know and trust. They often feel offended and do things in spite that hurt the group they lead.

3. Charismatic leaders overvalue loyalty

The fear of another, more capable leader causes charismatic leaders to put an overly strong focus on loyalty. They constantly fear revolts and conspiracies. Instead of choosing the best person for a job, they pick the most loyal, which hurts them and their goals.

Charismatic leaders often become paranoid and question the loyalty of their followers at every turn. This can lead to an increase in surveillance and control mechanisms – the leader has to check whether they can trust someone by tracing their emails, phone calls, and contacts.

What does it mean that Donald Trump is a charismatic leader?

If the description of a typical charismatic leader reminds you of Donald Trump, it is no coincidence. Trump is the prototype of a charismatic leader. Barack Obama, for example, has charisma, but he still led mostly by legal authority. Trump’s leadership is neither based on pedigree nor on a belief in a binding legal system at all. On the contrary, Trump opposes and intends to overwrite many of the limitations of the legal system.

This analysis shows why it is naïve to assume that Donald Trump would ever accept the limitations placed on him by the Constitution, his party, other politicians, and common decency. He may lose the battle to extend his powers, but he will never surrender it.

It is also unwise to assume that Trump’s core supporters will ever turn on him. Every charismatic leader has a core group of people that would follow him to the grave. Plans to use an eroding support for Trump to oppose him, for example by getting Republican politicians to support an impeachment, are futile. There is almost nothing that could erode Trump’s core support.

It also seems unlikely that Trump will ever fill the many open cabinet or cabinet-level seats. This is typical for charismatic leaders. They have to be completely sure that they can trust a person before they instill power in them. To quickly appoint ambassadors, Trump would need to show at least a little legal authority and believe in the system in which he works. And he seems to be incapable of that.

Conclusion

  1. Charismatic authority is based on a belief in the leader’s heroism, special abilities, superior character, etc.
  2. Charismatic leaders can motivate a lot of people to support them heavily, but they are prone to narcissism, overvalue loyalty, and are unable to share success, power, and the spotlight.
  3. Donald Trump is the prototype of a charismatic leader. His actions might seem surprising, but when we see them through the eye of charismatic leadership theory, we can understand and predict them.

Further reading

Max Weber – The Theory of Social and Economic Organization

Max Weber’s groundbreaking work that defined the basis of sociology, including his definition of leadership types. A great book for everyone who wants to dive deeper into the sociological theory behind this article.

Milton Mayer – They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.

Originally published in 1955, Mayer analyzes a group of ten Nazis that “were not men of distinction,” wondering what drove them to support the regime. He shows how a blind trust in Hitler caused them to justify even the most questionable decision – a prime example of the power of charismatic leadership.

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Published in Politics

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