Fatal Attraction

05 February 2018

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a longstanding interest in the appeal of Donald Trump, and the social and psychological forces that catapulted him into power. More recently, I’ve been fascinated by the sudden intellectual celebrity of University of Toronto psychologist and self-help guru Jordan Peterson, whose most recent book has rocketed to the top of US Amazon’s bestseller list. These and other events have piqued my interest in the phenomenon of charisma. I have been reading and thinking about this subject for some time now, and have made it the focus of this month’s contribution to the Philosophy Talk blog.

It’s a commonplace that certain people who rise to leadership positions seem to exude a sort of personal magnetism that many find irresistible. Early in the 20th century, the social theorist Max Weber called this mysterious quality "charisma." The word comes from the Greek kharisma—meaning “a divine gift or favor.” In the Christian tradition it refers to gifts such as prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues that flow from God’s grace. Weber adopted the term as a name for an attribute of a certain kind of leader. It is, he said, “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers.” Although there’s nowadays a spectrum of opinion among social theorists about what exactly charismatic leadership boils down to, most tend to think of it as a kind of authority that’s grounded in followers’ attitudes of reverence towards their leader, grounded in illusions that the leader wittingly or unwittingly cultivates.  

Some charismatic leaders are very obviously destructive. Hitler is the paradigmatic example. As Laurence Rees observes in his book Hitler’s Charisma, the charismatic leader “must possess a strong ‘missionary’ element and is almost a quasi-religious figure.”  He continues, “Followers of such a leader are looking for more than just lower taxes or better health care, but seek broader, almost spiritual goals of redemption and salvation. The charismatic leader cannot exist easily within normal bureaucratic structures and is driven forward by a sense of personal destiny.” What gives these leaders such immense destructive power is summed up by the subtitle of Rees’ book: Leading Millions Into The Abyss. They are able to attract zealous followers who are ready and willing to commit crimes and atrocities at the leader’s behest.  

Hitler was exceptional, both in the scope and the degree of the devastation that he wrought. Most charismatic leaders cannot be readily compared with him, as his malevolence, ambition, and gifts far outstripped those of most others. But you don’t have to incite violence to do harm. I think that there is something inherently injurious about charismatic authority, because it undermines followers’ autonomy, often in the guise of promoting it. The charismatic leader may loudly endorse the importance of truth, autonomy, and the ethic of personal freedom, while implicitly subverting these very values. He may urge his followers to take responsibility for their lives, to be reflective and self-critical, to speak truth to power, and to realize their human potential, while at the same time cultivating their idealization of him, fostering their intellectual and moral subservience and never challenging their abject failure to critically assess his pronouncements.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that autonomy is precious because it provides the platform upon which morality and rationality rest. You don’t have to swallow the whole Kantian framework to recognize that there is truth to this claim. However well intended, and whatever positive consequences might flow from behaving in ways that erode others’ autonomy, relating to others in this way is a gesture of profoundest disrespect.

Although there are many variations on charismatic leadership, there are certain core characteristics that these variations commonly share. The charismatic leader is usually a man, because this kind of leadership is closely associated with stereotypical masculine narratives and symbolism (which are often frowned upon when embodied in a woman). He is heroic. Fearlessly bucking convention, and unconstrained by the rules that hamstring others, he boldly points out facts that others are too timid or cowed by political correctness to address. He is confident and decisive, untroubled by uncertainty or self-doubt. As Hannah Arendt commented (apropos of Hitler’s charisma) that, “Extraordinary self-confidence and displays of self-confidence…inspire confidence in others; pretensions of genius waken the conviction in others that they are indeed dealing with a genius.” Even though he may be well read and have facts at his fingertips, his claims are often grand and sweeping—perhaps even cosmic in scope. He frames his message as an apocalyptic struggle between great forces. He asserts rather than questions, propounds rather than discusses, and contemptuously caricatures the views that he disagrees with, as well as the people who hold them.

The charismatic leader possesses a prophetic vision. He offers to rescue us, to redeem us, banish the sources of anxiety or despair, to avert an impending catastrophe. His message is an urgent one, alerting us to the danger posed by a powerful, demonic enemy. The enemy might be a cabal of Jews, a horde of illegal immigrants swarming across our southern border, or an army of postmodern neo-Marxists, chipping away at the foundations of Western civilization. But whatever its source, the leader takes pains to let us know that the menace has been ignored, underestimated, or pandered to by the complacent (or complicit) members of the ruling elites.

The charismatic leader appears to be sincere—usually because he really is sincere. He embraces his prophetic calling, and fully commits to the truth and value of his redemptive project. His power resides, in large measure, in the aura of authenticity that he projects. The charismatic leader performs sincerity. He is a master of stagecraft, with a gut-level understanding of the power of long, dramatic silences and animated gesticulations, and an uncanny ability to find just the form of words that are most likely to inspire the listeners whom he targets. To those untouched by his gospel, he seems arrogant, grandiose, and narcissistic. But to members of the charismatic community surrounding him, the experience is something akin to being in love.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he has an instinctive feel for the emotional pulse of his target audience, and can diagnose and respond to their pains, confusions, and frustrations. Many writers have pointed out that such leaders often come forward during times of rapid social change when established roles and norms are losing their grip and traditional identities are thrown into disarray. In every such transition, there are those who feel that they are in danger of losing the power, status, or security that they believe to be their rightful lot. They no longer know who they are, and can no longer count on the ordinary assumptions and routines of social life. It is people like these who are especially at risk of becoming entangled in a web of charismatic hype.

You don’t have to be stupid, uneducated, gullible, or deplorable to fall for charismatic leaders. Life can be hard, and is full of uncertainty, vulnerability, and disappointment. Because of this, and because of the uniquely human capacity to envision a different world, it is part of the human condition to have a weak spot for magical solutions to life’s seemingly intractable problems. It’s easy to sneer at those whom we recognize as true believers in would-be saviors, but the fatal attraction of charisma is something to which none of us are entirely immune. And this makes it all the more important to resist.




Comments (3)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, February 5, 2018 -- 10:50 AM

I suppose we could compare

I suppose we could compare/contrast the appeal of Mr. Trump to any number of facially charismatic figures who have came and went over the course of history. I suppose this has already been done, ad nauseum in this first year of his turbulent presidency. I tend to look at the matter a bit differently, more as an anomaly, a blip on the radar of probability. Few people seriously thought he had a chance---he didn't look right for the job and did not act right either. Still doesn't. Experts in the field of 'chance' talk and write about distinguishing 'signal' from 'noise'. In this regard, Trump was somehow able to convince many of us that his message was the signal we had been waiting to hear. But, unless one is hopelessly and politically supportive of the party in control of federal and state government, the prevailing message coming from the commander-in-chief is NOISE and shows no overt sign of becoming SIGNAL. The dilemma? Now that we have him, only a few of us are actively seeking a constructive solution: this has never happened before, and the anomalous nature of the problem gives it ineffable intractability. This demonstrates an old, but truthful, adage: Be careful what you wish for.
Charisma can bite you in the butt.

Helga Vierich's picture

Helga Vierich

Wednesday, February 7, 2018 -- 5:30 PM

Network size appears to be

Network size appears to be relatively large in humans, and larger personal networks have been linked to cognitive and emotional intelligence. As observed among the Kua, the “hubs” - the people with the largest networks – are “popular” – their presence enhances group size and harmony - which in turn stabilizes food supply and enhances the safety of camp sites, since in a larger group there is always somebody awake to keep fires burning and watch out for approaching predators.

The male network “hubs” I observed among the Kua were men who pulled together the largest camping parties. It was not their hunting ability that did this. They were men who personified valued qualities: generosity, competence, courage, compassion, and humour. Such men had the biggest camps because more households gravitated to join the band that contained such a man. Perhaps, even 100,000 years ago, they already had a certain sex appeal?

Sexual selection may even have taken off in the times of greatest hardship, honing female preference for popular men; but at the same time, the personal integrity that was in evidence in popular men, also was exactly the quality that attracted male companions. Can we imagine such a thing as social selection? These men were lifelong friends, not necessarily relatives, and clearly trusted each other. They did not appear to imperil each other’s marriages; and were observed to behave responsibly towards each other’s daughters and sisters. Attraction to people who embody ideals is not a minor drive, it situates the fate of one’s genetic legacy within an intensely social life, where the choice of living companions has as much to say about chances of one’s children’s survival as the choice of a mate.

Charisma became a thing, yeah, but so did ethics. Of course ethics and charisma are not just male attributes. Some of the most influential people I met among the Kua were older women, who often served as a counterpoint to male authority within kin-groups. They were vocal advocates reinforcing fair sharing, justice, and insisting on self-control, sometimes in raucous and hilarious language and gesture. Grandmothers were far more than babysitters and helpful with provisions, they can have as powerful a moral authority in human societies as grandfathers.

The last 400,000 - 350,000 years, then, might just have been the time in human evolutionary history when it was the mental and emotional qualities of individuals made the greatest difference to group survival. Periods of isolation, during glacial advances in Eurasia, and mega-droughts in Africa, would have made inbreeding depression a real danger; it is plausible that even the persistence of “weak ties” would have been critical to avoid this. Popular people, with the farthest mutually cordial links, might offer us a glimpse of how genetic and cultural "cul-de-sacs" were avoided. In addition to the utility - to genetic exchange - of having a certain number of such people who acted as “hubs” of communication between demes, useful innovations and concepts could easily be ghosted (as memes and curios) through half a dozen degrees of separation.

ghori92's picture


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