Power  /  Book Review

Charismatic Models

There is, and always has been, a vanishingly thin line between charismatic democratic rulers and charismatic authoritarians.

At the peak of the coronavirus crisis in March, Americans received an instructive lesson in different forms of political authority. Every afternoon, President Trump deployed his usual brazen, off-the-cuff confidence about drinking bleach and reopening businesses, turning his crisis press conferences, like everything he touches, into a reality TV show in which he is the star. Meanwhile, the portion of the public not enthralled by Trump’s act—and perhaps even some who were—found a contrasting form of leadership in figures like Anthony Fauci, whose sober assessment of the threat and straightforward advice about saving lives inspired such adulation that Americans were soon learning about his high school basketball career.

Other than a podium, the thing that united these men at that moment was their charisma. Each had a charismatic relationship with a community of followers who believed their leader’s extraordinary qualities would save them from a crisis. To be sure, Trump and Fauci used their power to contrasting ends—but according to Princeton historian David Bell, that is a built-in danger of charismatic authority, one that Bell believes is inextricably entwined in modern democratic politics. “A potentially authoritarian charisma is as modern a phenomenon as any of the liberal ideas and practices that arose in the age of revolution,” he writes in his new book Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution.

Anyone concerned with the question of charismatic political leaders necessarily stands in the shadow of Max Weber, the great German sociologist who wrote sketches of the subject not long before his death, a century ago, from a case of pneumonia brought on by the Spanish flu. For Weber, charisma was one of three basic forms of political authority, along with traditional rule based on custom and rational rule based on law and bureaucracy. Yet while traditional and rational rule both aimed, despite their differences, at securing the foundations for everyday life by providing permanent structures to satisfy ordinary needs with ordinary means, charismatic rule was strikingly different. It involved the “personal devotion” of a group of followers to a leader whom they “considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Suited expressly for extraordinary situations—“arising out of enthusiasm, or of despair or hope,” as Weber put it—charismatic authority was inherently unstable. It was, in fact, “a specifically revolutionary force” that “transforms all values and breaks all traditional and rational norms.” “In traditionalist periods,” he added, “charisma is the great revolutionary force.”

Bell adopts Weber’s conception of charismatic authority and his notion of it as a revolutionary force. Rather than examining it as an abstract type, however, Bell is interested in what charisma looked like at a particular time and place: the “Age of Revolution,” which rippled across the Atlantic world from roughly 1775 to 1825. First in North America, then France, then Haiti, then South America, people rebelled against their rulers and, following charismatic revolutionary leaders, established new states. In a series of chapters focusing on George Washington, Napoleon, Toussaint Louverture and Simón Bolívar—the titular “men on horseback”—Bell examines the nature of each man’s charisma, the means of its propagation, the extent of its reach and its ultimate political result. His purpose, broadly speaking, is to assess the role of charisma in modern political culture while also outlining a new interpretation of the age of supposedly democratic revolutions. Donald Trump is never mentioned by name—he is once called “the victorious candidate” in the 2016 election—but his specter haunts the book as Bell makes the case that there is, and always has been, a vanishingly thin line between charismatic democratic rulers and charismatic authoritarians.