OCTOBER 6, 2020
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO READ Men on Horseback, David A. Bell’s masterful account of charisma in modern history, without thinking about Men in Golf Carts. Though Donald Trump is never mentioned, our nation’s very own “He Who Must Not Be Named” casts a malign shadow over almost every page. In his lucid and bracing history, Bell helps us better understand how this charismatic grifter came to occupy the most powerful office in the world.
As with tango, so too with charisma: it takes two. Just about a century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber made this point, though without this comparison, in a variety of writings, ranging from his much-read Politics as a Vocation (1919) to his less read Economy and Society (1922). Something of a charismatic figure himself — his students marveled at his mesmerizing presence — Weber defined the charismatic individual as someone who is endowed with “supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” These powers hold the promise of salvation in this world. (Several members of Weber’s circle believed that, in the words of the political theorist Robert Michels, their mentor was the “savior” destined to rescue Germany from its postwar political and economic chaos.)
In a twist on Bishop Berkeley’s esse est percipi, however, Weber claimed that a charismatic leader remains charismatic only so long as he is perceived to be charismatic. There is, he held, a reciprocity or “recognition” that ties charismatic leaders to their followers — not so much unilateral command as mutual consent; a consensus that is, by its very nature, unstable and unpredictable. Ultimately, charisma depends as much on the seer as it does on the seen.
This elusive quality belongs not only to failed real estate developers and casino magnates, but also to successful revolutionaries and statesmen. Before considering such figures, Bell begins with a failed contender for the title: Pasquale Paoli. Though now largely unknown to anyone outside of Corsica — the island whose independence he fought for and ultimately failed to achieve — Paoli did achieve celebrity across Europe in the mid-18th century.
He did so, in part, thanks to James Boswell. Long before he became the biographer of Samuel Johnson, Boswell won fame by writing a life of sorts of Paoli. The young and impressionable Scot climaxed his European tour in 1765 by visiting the revolutionary leader in his island stronghold — a tour, Bell notes, that Boswell devoted to meeting great men like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. What Bell does not note, however, is that Boswell undertook his tour not simply because these men were reputed to be great, but also because they held the promise of answering the great questions of life and death.
While Paoli could not provide such answers, he did give Boswell a purpose: to spread the name and cause of this remarkable individual. In the best-selling account of his visit that he published upon his return to Britain, a still smitten Boswell created a Paoli who was even larger and greater, but also more private and intimate, than what the world already knew of him. Paoli was, Boswell declared, a man who “lives in the times of antiquity” — a man in whom he saw his “highest ideal realized.” Not only did Paoli’s formidable physique and mind strike Boswell’s imagination, but his egalitarian and fraternal character also impressed him. He was, as Boswell insisted, a man of and not above the people.
In the end, Paoli did not liberate Corsica. France soon annexed the island, and Paoli spent his last years exiled in London. But he did liberate the rest of Europe — or, at least, its literate elites — to see political leadership and charisma in a different light. As Bell argues, Paoli replaced the earlier model of distant rulers and passive subjects with one that thrived on the imagined and intense relationship between leader and followers; he was a leader whose extraordinary qualities encouraged ordinary types to identify with him. The elements that made for Paoli’s charisma — sharpened and magnified by Boswell — became the template for the successful revolutionary charismatics who followed. The Scot’s portrayal of Paoli, both in his person and in his rapport with his people, represented something that was radically new. His heroic qualities, rather than being framed by the hierarchical world of the Old Regime, were now illuminated by the new democratic regimes that were bursting into being on both sides of the Atlantic. Rather than standing above and apart from those he led, this new kind of leader stood side by side with them. Shaped by the burgeoning print media, this new political scene was one in which legitimacy issued not from the leader’s direct line to God, but instead from his charismatic tie to the people.
Yet charisma is fickle. Not only does it depend on a capricious consensus between leader and led, but it also tempts the leader to move from being the guarantor of democratic rule to becoming its gravedigger. In the Age of Revolution, peoples ran the risk of ridding themselves of one kind of authoritarian ruler only to substitute a different version of the same. The rejection of gods and kings, Bell notes, “made it easier, not harder, for peoples around the Atlantic world to subjugate themselves willingly to apparently extraordinary men who offered themselves as saviors.”
In his rich and rewarding portraits of George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Toussaint Louverture, and Simón Bolívar, Bell traces the various arcs of this volatile dynamic. We are reminded that Washington’s apparently irresistible ascent to the ceiling of the Capitol rotunda was not hailed by all of his contemporaries. During a debate at the Continental Congress over whether to grant greater war powers to Washington, an anxious John Adams avowed that he was “distressed to see some of our members disposed to idolize an image which their own hands have molten.” By way of underscoring what should have been the obvious reference, Adams added: “I speak of the superstitious veneration which is paid to General Washington.”
Ultimately, Washington proved equal to his myth. Both as a general and as a president, he refused to transform his awesome authority into authoritarianism. In an unsubtle jab at our own Voldemort, Bell writes that, unlike “some of his successors, Washington did not boast of the size of his crowds, still less attempt to silence or threaten his opponents by reference to his level of popular support.” Washington was, in fact, a throwback to ancient Romans — but to Cincinnatus, not Caesar. As Bell notes, had it not been for the precedent set by Washington resigning his military command and retiring to Mount Vernon, our Constitution, which created an executive office endowed with awesome powers, might never have been ratified.
Thanks to these same awesome powers, that document is now threatened by a president whose former senior advisor, Steve Bannon, owns a portrait of himself dressed as the charismatic leader who, unlike Washington, saw himself as a superior being exempt from ordinary rules: Napoleon Bonaparte. Bell suggests that, despite — or perhaps because of — the cult of law introduced by the events of 1789, the desire for a charismatic leader ran deep and strong in revolutionary France. What better moment for a man on horseback to appear? Especially a man who, cutting a poor figure on horseback, commissioned the painter Jacques-Louis David to portray him heroically crossing the Alps astride a white steed — not the mule he actually rode. As brilliant a propagandist as he was a strategist, Napoleon remade himself while busy remaking France, Europe, and much of the rest of the world. Bursting the confines of the charismatic model hammered into shape by Paoli and Washington — or, rather, by their admirers — Napoleon had, in the words of his nemesis Germaine de Staël, “monopolized all celebrity for himself alone, and prevented all other existing beings from ever being able to acquire any.”
While the charismatic rules of Louverture and Bolívar also drew on the Washingtonian model, their deepening authoritarian character drew them far closer to the Napoleonic version. But whether these individuals tended toward the democratic or the autocratic, they all reflected a political reality, based on celebrity and charisma, wrought in an age of revolution — a reality that still holds us in thrall. Like our 18th-century ancestors, we are confronted by an unsettling yet unavoidable paradox: democratic politics cannot live with charisma, yet it also cannot live without it. Though progressive and liberal movements are rightly repelled by the charismatic power Donald Trump wields, Bell warns that we cannot dispense with that power but must rather make use of it. While his prescription — namely, that we must choose our charismatic leaders with care — is not as reassuring as we might like, Bell’s description of our predicament makes for essential reading.