By Angus Brown
“an individual… set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities”
– Max Weber on the “Charismatic” leader
Charisma is the very essence of populism. As Weber knew, the populist leader must be an individual of exceptional charismatic talents. He must, at least, seem to be imbued with supernatural virtues; to his followers he (and most often such leaders are indeed male) must seem like a divine figure on earth. For Weber, the charismatic leader must be a “man of destiny” – to borrow a term from Nietzsche, he must be a superman. Yet for the modern populist this is not enough. Merely being the hero of the people cannot adequately capture the connection he or she must have, instead they must embody the people. The populists of the 21st century exist in a world of immediate communication, in which any flaw or gaffe can be instantaneously transmitted to almost every voter whose support they wish to gain. They cannot, therefore, be a flawed mortal and instead must take on the very aspect of the nation itself – if they wish to capture the sense that they alone can protect the people’s hopes, dreams, fears and hatreds then they must embody the people themselves and attempt to transcend their human fallibility.
The current President of the United States and his particular brand of billionaire populism are a clear example of this strategy. A New York billionaire married to a super model and living in a golden tower plastered with his name is, as many have already tirelessly noted, hardly a description of the average American, and yet it is to this figure which Trump’s policies speak the loudest. It was Trump who, at the Republican National Convention in 2016, declared to his supporters “I am your voice!” and promised them his protection against their enemies; exploitative corporations, liberal elites and meddling bureaucrats. These, for many Americans, are the enemy of their potential successes. They see their condition in libertarian terms, and believe they are held back not by circumstance or structures of social oppression and manipulation (or even by their own lack of talent) but by these meddlers. Many have been traditional supporters of Republican efforts to cut back the state (particularly the Tea Party and its rallying cry that “We want our country back!”) and now they have turned to Trump, a man who pledges to destroy it. In the absence of a pathway to reform only destruction can save America from its own government, and only Trump seemed to promise hope in shattering the system. Indeed, Trump is not only a leader for his supporters, but for all his vulgar ostentation he lives the lives they want. The man once derisively dubbed “what a Hobo imagines a rich man might be” lives a life many Americans would do anything to have. To them his gaudy mansions and vast egoistic monuments are a sign of the highest form of success, of great wealth and the fame that matches it. Like George W. Bush Trump was the candidate Middle American voters could most easily see themselves drinking a beer with, and this won him their votes. For blue collar workers left behind for years by neoliberal economics and elite politicians Trump is the epitome of the man who has achieved the American dream.
Trump’s allure, built over decades in the public eye (in large part as the host and judge of a telephone voting based reality show), is now such that many of his most hard core supporters consider him infallible. Across the internet, locked in battle with his opponents, Trump’s supporters may acknowledge no flaw in a man who they see as their saviour. It is in this way that Trump, a man with vices and prejudices and weaknesses like any other, has become the Weberian superman needed to lead a popular uprising against established politics. By embodying everything his supporters desire, he has elevated himself above the realm of the ordinary politicians he faces to be a cultural leader as well as a political one. He is the face of an ideological backlash against liberalism which – in its sense of community and demands for utter devotion to the cause against its enemies – is almost religious in the Durkheimian sense. Like religion in Durkheim’s philosophy of human society, the new populism is an all encompassing ideology informing every aspect of life, it is a centralisation of one side in the society defining culture war around an icon of their interests. Trump’s supporters will not waver and switch allegiances as long as he projects this image. Despite all his losses, as long as Trump “seems” like a winner then he will maintain his charisma, and whilst his persona seems to encapsulate everything a certain section of Americans want his hold over them will be unassailable.
Trump is not the first leader to have such talents or to have created such an image. Kershaw argued in 1991 that Hitler was a perfect example of this model, and I would argue that ‘der Führer’ also attempted to embody the nation he sought to lead. His now infamous “Mein Kampf” presented not only an autobiography of but also a history Germany’s national struggle since the First World War, and to give such a book the title “my struggle” gives one an idea of how Hitler sought to present himself. In fact, the Nazi leader and his followers were image obsessed; the Swastika, the prime symbol of Hitler’s personalist style of rule, was plastered everywhere. It, and not the Coca Cola logo or Nike ‘Swoosh’, was the first modern all pervasive “brand icon”. Hitler further sought to portray himself as a symbol of German masculine virtue. For the Nazis, the Weimar Republic had been a time of declining moral values and cultural degeneration which had to be stopped. From the Freikorps of the 1920s they had inherited a loathing of “politicised women” (like Rosa Luxemburg), and they sought to combat a generational “crisis of masculinity” which swept the world alongside unemployment after the Great Depression. Hitler stood in opposition to all of this, he was the great masculine leader which many longed for and which Weber had prophesised (and perhaps even sought to bring to power) as late as the 1920s. German aspirations of returning to a position of dominance (both the mythologised dominance of the early Germanic peoples and their medieval ancestors and the perceived strength of Wilhelmine Germany) were tied up in a Prussian conception of masculine virility which the Nazis exploited. The personality cult on which the Nazi Party and the Third Reich ran is the archetypal example of the idea of the populist as the nation, but the impression so far – running from Trump to Hitler, and so invoking contemporary played out comparisons – that this phenomenon is limited to the authoritarian right is untrue. If we look closely, we will find that moderates and liberals alike are hardly superior in this regard.
On a day intended to be one of celebration for France’s medieval heroine Jean D’Arc, Emmanuel Macron compared himself to her. This young, ambitious, technocratic outsider was in the process of utterly reinventing himself. No more would he be the insider banker who had served in Hollande’s cabinet, he would transform himself into a symbol of everything which France wanted to be. And he has. Like Trump, for his supporters at least, Macron is everything France aspires to be; graceful, eloquent, intellectual, and upwardly mobile, the young President is the model Frenchman. He can go from decisive public policy-making and statesmanship one moment to repeating French poetry back to philosophers the next. Like Jean D’Arc he has risen from nowhere, a tiny French village, to lead his people back to glory even as the whole world seems set against them, but perhaps this is not the most apt comparison one can make – another enigmatic young man who rose from nowhere to absolute power haunts French history, and Macron is acutely aware of this. Like Napoleon Bonaparte, Macron is young for a political leader, and like Bonaparte he seeks to steer his country through what he sees as “revolutionary” times. When Macron calls himself “Jupiter”, he may harken back to de Gaulle, but he is comparing himself to Napoleon, and in doing so he is painting himself as an embodiment of the French nation. As Sudhir Hareezingh has suggested, the Napoleonic myth is central to the French conception of their own nation, and Macron’s conscious decision to paint himself as the new Napoleon is part of an effort to seize that national identity for himself.
In that Marine Le Pen too sought to be a symbol of her people, the 2017 French Presidential Election was a battle of competing visions for a nation. Macron did not solely win because his hopeful persona was something the French aspired to be more than Le Pen’s motherly patriotic image, but such an image helped. Where Macron emphasises a cosmopolitan, pragmatic, and quintessentially liberal vision of France, Le Pen emphasis tradition, order, and national integrity. Unlike all of the other candidates in the election – save, perhaps, Mélenchon who sought to represent the ideals of the ‘Old Left’ – Macron and Le Pen were trying not just to become President of France but to become a symbol of it. The campaign they fought was as much about cultural issues and what the candidates thought the very nature of being “French” meant than it was about specific policy details. When the French people voted, for many it was a vote about who you wanted to lead France as it was about what you wanted France’s leader to do. Whilst Macron is not exactly a populist (he is certainly more of a technocrat), he ran an undeniably populistic campaign, appealing to a French desire for a strong and unifying leader in the mould of Napoleon, De Gaulle, Mitterand, or Chirac. He was not only a charismatic leader, but a “man of destiny” or, as Phillipe Besson puts it, Un Personnage de Roman… a character from a novel – a protagonist fit for an entire country.
To understand the symbolic resonance of the populist leader we must move beyond a simple conception of “charisma”. The superhuman man of destiny who leads a people to victory is more than just a figure of Nietzschean talent, he must become an emblem of the people himself. It is not enough in a world of mass media which necessitates charisma to simply be a popular politician to be “populist”. To achieve the central populist spirit of championing the “pure” people vs the “corrupt” elite one must now transcend personhood (at least to their followers) to represent the nation. In the age before mass media the distant political dignitary could flourish and the populist was his rare opponent. Today all politicians have been made showmen – often at the expense of their statesmanship – and the populist has become something newer and more audacious. This new populism is not a right-wing phenomenon (though the right with its individualist spirit and love of the “heroic” is certainly more predisposed to such emotional devotion), but can be observed on both the left and the right and in the “centre”. In fact, from a Durkheimian perspective one could even argue that such a commanding figure plays the role of a divinity or priest in a world without religious commitment. Worshipful devotion to a supreme political avatar may fulfil the role in unifying and providing meaning to a life that religion can no longer fulfil. When politicians like Donald Trump declare that they are the people’s “voice” they do not just mean they will fight for them, they mean that – on a symbolic level at the very least – they will become them.