In the future, our times will not be viewed as normal. Distant historians will peer back on these years, trying to make sense of our alien lives and the events that led us to our present woes. We will all be bound up in the pages of their history books: Our fears, our worries, our hopes; all will be mechanically pressed onto thin white sheets. Children will yawn as they doodle on their jotters and listen to their teacher drone on about our world. Sometimes I think to myself; what will those lessons be? What exactly about our lives will those children be tasked to remember?
Presently, it feels like those pupils will likely be taught the story of charismatic leaders. Today, the defining quality of heads of state like Trump and Putin is their reliance on personality as the key to staying in office. Like those leaders in the past, from the Gracchi brothers’ Rome to the post-Great Depression West, I imagine our tale to be told largely through those who guided their followers through passion. Yet, I doubt that our tale will focus purely on our leaders. Another two, not mutually exclusive, figures will likely feature too; the neglected worker and the self-destructive progressive.
There is a charming article dating from 1968 which sheds some light on how all three of these characters might interact. In it, Robert C. Tucker of Princeton University asks; what does it mean for a leader to be charismatic? This is a harder question than you might think. You might be easily able to identify who has the burning flame of charisma and who lacks it. It is harder to explain what makes one leader bright and the other dull, or even what it is that lit this fire in the first place. Put simply, we know that charisma exists but often find it hard to explain exactly what it is.
What is most impressive about Tucker’s article is that it teaches so much about charisma without offering a definitive answer to this problem. We learn numerous lessons about its nature; that charisma blesses without care for the moral qualms of the recipient: The world’s Trumps may be as charismatic as its Obamas. We are told that charisma imbues leaders with a form of domination over their flocks, through their being rather than through their intellect. Interestingly too, charisma favours the radical. It is found in those who ‘repudiate the past’ and ask followers to join them in ‘a movement for change,’ eluding those who merely settle for the status quo.
There is one observation of Tucker’s that feels particularly pertinent, which gives charisma a place in that hypothetical future textbook. Tucker eventually asks his readers; what is it that makes the charismatic leader so revered? ‘In short,’ he answers, ‘the key to the charismatic response… lies in the distress that the followers experience.’ It is not simply the subtle wink or the charming smile that beguiles the crowd, but the offer of an almost religious ‘salvation,’ deliverance from their woes and fears. Tucker observes, ‘charismatic leadership is specifically salvationist or messianic in nature,’ eluding the world’s John Majors and ‘Remain’ campaigns. Specifically, charisma smiles when politicians offer to deliver us from the fear of the terrorism or of poverty, from the anxiety of not knowing who we are, and from the existential dread that we face when we see our daily rituals as frail and temporary. It is in the enormous self-belief of the charismatic leader that we believe that there is an escape from these woes, that their creed can solve all that is wrong with our lives.
This is what makes charisma such a fearsome spirit. She reduces politics to faith and zeal, suggesting we judge leaders on confidence, not competence. The plausible and motivating lie becomes more powerful than the tedious and complex truth. Under her spell, we become unwilling to hear others joke about or criticise the leaders and movements we love, allowing our scepticism to be muted lest we be revealed to be wrong. Yet, charisma thrives not on her own powers, but on the inequality of societies and in the inability to find credible solutions. It is here the undervalued worker and the self-destructive progressive enter our story, and here where we may limit her presence in those next pages of our history.
Inequality has always aided charisma. In the Roman Republic, the Gracchi brothers rose to prominence due to the impoverishing effects of Rome’s wealthy slave-employing land owners. Slavery reduced the costs of production, undercutting the prices of smaller farmers and forcing them off of their lands and onto Rome’s streets. The public’s sense of loss and destitution formed the basis of the Gracchi movement, one which was eventually exploited by the dictator Julius Caesar. Likewise today, demagogues like Trump and Farage have thrived on the inequality caused by our management of globalisation, with paltry salaries and overstretched services fomenting a rage towards immigrants and globalisation, not bad public policy.
The maintenance of inequality is not simply immoral, but impractical. In Britain, our millennial generation is to be the first to have lower earnings than their predecessors. Likewise, our poor have faced cuts to their welfare alongside cuts to their public services, and now face price rises thanks to Brexit-induced inflation. While globalisation and international trade has created vast amounts of wealth, this has not been distributed to all in society. Rather, fortunes have gone to those who already have most, those who will be the likely beneficiaries of further tax-cuts. When a system feels rigged against you, could you say no to the charismatic promise of salvation?
This has not been helped by the failures of our progressives to create a liberal vision of citizenship that can also be termed ‘patriotic.’ Too often, Liberals wince at the mention of the ‘p word,’ a self-destructive tendency. In one recent speech, the far-right French Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen sought to define our new politics as a choice between ‘patriots’ and ‘globalists,’ suggesting that progressives are anti-patriotic. To cede this point would be disastrous for both progressives and our societies. Patriotism need not be the defined by our willingness to attach ourselves to a specific religion or ethnicity, but can be understood through the valuing of the rule of law and a concern for the welfare of our fellow citizens. Liberals must convince their publics that their ideas are in their national interest, providing answers which speak to people’s fears for their liberties and way of life.
It is liberating to think about future history books when we consider our power over their contents. We, the citizens, are the authors of the future. The pages which unfold in the months and years to come need not be defined by demagogues, but by a popular and progressive platform which is far from impossible. Progressives have the power to overcome the crises they face, but will only succeed if they will it. We should always be conscious of that history which we author each day: It is our choices that textbooks shall describe, our efforts which children will remember, and our actions which will inspire them to be better citizens. If we are to be remembered for anything, let it be for overcoming the dangerously enchanting call of charisma.