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.
The charismatic model of political leadership that Bell is interested in was made possible, he believes, by Enlightenment-era ideas and cultural changes that took shape in the generation or two before his first case study begins, with Pasquale Paoli, the leader of Corsica in the 1750s and 1760s. Bell passes quickly over the political ideas. Popular sovereignty was a key concept because it placed the ultimate source of political authority in the people, but that alone, he says, cannot account for the rise of charismatic leaders. The main story, for him, has to do with cultural changes involving secularization and celebrity. First, as the scientific advances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made God seem increasingly remote from individual lives, people’s desire for a connection to supernatural forces was displaced onto nature, finding one home in a new fascination with geniuses who had been endowed by nature with extraordinary abilities. Meanwhile, an explosion of print after 1700 meant that people had increasingly easy access to novels and newspapers. Sentimental novels, in particular, trained readers to develop a deep emotional relationship with characters.
By the end of the 1700s, their techniques had been translated into a new style of biography focusing on the individuality and private life of living people, complete with anecdotes of intimate moments with family and friends. These sentimental biographies combined with other products of the print revolution, like periodicals and engravings, to give birth to celebrity culture. All these changes, Bell writes, “taking place in tandem with the spread of belief in popular sovereignty, created the possibility for ordinary people to see political figures in a radically new way. They could now imagine that they knew these figures personally and intimately and could feel a powerful emotional connection to them—a connection heightened by their sense of the figures’ sublime, transcendent, extraordinary qualities.” Modern charismatic political leadership—of a kind we can still recognize today—was born.
Bell uses Paoli’s broader fame throughout Europe and the Americas to show how print culture enabled charismatic political models to spread around the Atlantic world. After taking power in 1755, Paoli developed a written constitution for Corsica, resolved disputes among local clans, reorganized the government, and established a university. But all that would have remained a provincial story if not for the publication of James Boswell’s Account of Corsica, which included “memoirs of Pasquale Paoli,” in 1768. As he did more famously in his later Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell provided intimate portrayals and effusive praise of his leading man. “I was glad to have an opportunity of seeing him in those teasing moments, when,” Boswell wrote, “according to the Duke de la Rochefoucault, no man is a hero to his valet de chambre.” Despite being privy to such moments, Boswell concluded, “I saw my highest ideal realized.” Then as now, access to supposedly unscripted moments of authenticity could secure the devotion of writers as well as readers.
Boswell’s book was a big success, selling seven thousand copies in Britain and being translated into several other languages. Widely reviewed and praised, it launched a torrent of Paoli-related material in the British press: there were poems called The Paoliad and recipes for things like “Chicken Paoli.” Paoli’s fame in Britain declined after 1769, when Corsica was crushed by the French, but his legend lived on in British North America, where he provided a potent “symbol of resistance,” Bell notes, for a set of colonies in the early stages of its own struggle against an overseas overlord. “The charismatic reputation Paoli developed elsewhere in the Western world,” Bell writes, “demonstrated the power of print fervently to attach a far-flung set of admirers to a previously unknown, charismatic figure.”
According to Bell, Paoli’s model helped other societies envision a new form of charismatic political leadership, and the revolutions that took place over the next fifty years provided plenty of opportunities for charismatic leaders to emerge and be embraced by newly empowered peoples. Bell’s individual portraits of these charismatic revolutionary leaders build to a broader interpretation of the age of democratic revolutions as a whole.
Ever since the French Revolution started in 1789, the nature of one revolution’s influence on another has been an open question. Sometimes the American Revolution is severed from the revolutionary sequence as sui generis and somehow intellectually impotent despite its success, as in Hannah Arendt’s contention that it “has remained an event of little more than local importance.” Bell believes it did have an influence, just not in the ideas or Constitution the revolutionaries had fought for. “Astonishingly,” he notes, proving part of Arendt’s point, “not once in the early years of the French Revolution does a single political figure seem to have quoted the American Declaration of Independence.” The lines of influence, Bell asserts, occurred rather in models of political leadership. “What impressed Europeans,” he writes, “was not specific American political arrangements so much as exemplary American men, above all Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.” Like Paoli before them, they provided a model of republicanism in action for later leaders like Napoleon and Toussaint Louverture, and that model proved relevant across national borders because the Atlantic world constituted a coherent political community. By the time Bolívar was at work in Spanish America in the 1810s, Bell says, the revolutionary experiences of the United States, France and Haiti meant that “charismatic leadership had become a dominant feature of political life throughout the Atlantic world.”
Bell’s book is narrative, not comparative, and it focuses on shared models, not distinct ideas, so it sometimes has the effect of smushing all the revolutions together into one undifferentiated mass. There are variations depending on the character of the leader and the conditions of his country, but Bell’s chapters can start to feel repetitive as he diligently describes each man’s rise to power and the spread of his charismatic reputation. Indeed, that repetitiveness is part of the point, since Bell wants to show how charismatic models were copied and adapted over time. There is always a major crisis in which the charismatic leader proves himself and saves his country through an audacious display of military skill: Washington crossing the Delaware, Napoleon crossing the Alps, Bolívar crossing the Andes. The people celebrate their savior and his extraordinary qualities in news reports, poems and plays, which spread his renown throughout the Atlantic world. Toasts are made; towns, ships and children are named for the hero. There are celebratory parades, often including triumphal arches and young women clad in white. At some point the military hero becomes a political leader.
By basing political legitimacy in a direct, personal connection to the people, Bell notes, this new style of leader could actually achieve greater power than traditional rulers bound by the constraints of honor and tradition. Whatever democratic ideas the leader once espoused fade into the past as he makes himself ruler for life; the age of democratic revolutions resulted in few successful democracies. At the same time, the charismatic leader inevitably faces the problem of how to sustain his charismatic authority, which is central to his power and, by now, his increasingly egotistical self-conception. Propaganda helps, but not forever. Military defeat or the decline of popular support means the leader’s end comes early, and he ends up dying alone, in exile.
In France, Haiti and South America, charismatic revolutionary leaders gave way to a string of emperors, dictators and military strongmen. Washington is the great exception to this general scheme. What happened to his charisma after his death? Bell largely agrees with other scholars who have claimed that it became embedded in the American presidency, where the Constitution domesticated it for everyday use. And he believes that charisma has been kept alive to this day as a regular feature of politics not only in America but throughout the world. “Charisma is an integral, inescapable part of modern political life—democracy’s shadow self,” he writes. “Its modern forms arose out of the same cultural and intellectual universe that gave birth, in the age of revolution, to modern constitutional, democratic regimes.” Bell proves the worth of this insight in a variety of asides that illuminate everything from why it’s hard for female leaders to benefit from their charisma (love from male citizens easily shades into indecent erotic desire) to why nearly all contemporary leaders make rhetorical appeals to rebirth (charisma, however attenuated, remains revolutionary at heart).
Beyond that, Bell’s history can help us assess the dangers facing democracy today. Do democracies stand on anything more solid than the quicksand of popular love for a leader? Nearly all leaders, however virtuous, can be too easily corrupted by their own love of being loved, as Bell’s book and elementary human experience prove. Moreover, the essence of love as an emotion undermines the possibility of making rational choices about our rulers and regimes. As Hannah Arendt pointed out long ago in On Revolution, emotions like love and compassion abolish “the worldly space between men where political matters, the whole realm of human affairs, are located.” She believed that passionate emotions like love necessarily “shun the drawn-out wearisome processes of persuasion, negotiation, and compromise, which are the processes of law and politics,” because they can only take immediate action, not engage in argumentative speech. (This holds equally, it should be noted, for rage and hate.)
Bell’s book amounts to a demonstration of this insight, showing how charisma works to abolish the distance between a people and their leader by forging the sense of intimate connection. And Bell is well aware that the internet and social media have made it even easier than before to abolish distance by warping political figures into friends whose photos and tweets appear in your feed. He knows that it is inevitable, perhaps now more than ever, for many charismatic leaders to fall on the authoritarian side of the scale.
Yet he has learned from history that we can’t simply jettison charisma. Nor, he thinks, should we want to. The existence of leaders like Trump, Putin, Modi and Duterte “should not discredit the use of a charismatic politics for democratic, liberal ends,” he argues, because fighting for democracy “requires more than principles and causes—it requires leaders who can elicit emotions powerful enough to impel people to action.” After all, Bernie Sanders is also a charismatic figure. Having accepted the inevitability and even desirability of charismatic leaders in modern politics, Bell ends with an enjoinder “to choose these charismatic leaders wisely, by judging as carefully as possible both the individuals themselves and the causes for which they stand.”
This registers as a somewhat weak conclusion in the face of the revolutionary power that Bell has shown charismatic authority to have, especially given that he doesn’t directly define the criteria we should be using to judge wisely. But his book contains an implicit answer in the form of George Washington, who appears as clearly the most admirable of the men under consideration. Granted, a variety of factors played into this result. The United States was not beset on all sides by counterrevolutionary forces, like France, nor was it subject to the decades of hatred and fear that greeted Haiti’s multiracial republic. Instead, it was singularly lucky to have an isolated, prosperous, relatively equal society (among free people) that already had more than a century of experience with self-government.
But the United States also chose George Washington as its leader. Bell shows Bonaparte, Louverture and Bolívar starting to assert their own destiny to rule and ultimately believing in their own superiority to others. In stark contrast, Washington resisted the temptation to buy into his own legend and voluntarily laid down his power twice rather than becoming ruler for life. Bell attributes some of this to the American Revolution’s success, which, uniquely among the revolutions he discusses, “allowed for the survival into peacetime of an unquestionably legitimate and undivided civilian government.” Yet he also allows that Washington’s character played a crucial role. “His charismatic reputation in 1789 constituted a potential political weapon of enormous power,” he notes. “A Bonaparte would not have hesitated to use it. Washington never did.”
Instead of exploiting his charismatic legend for his personal aggrandizement, Washington deployed it strategically to bestow authority on the Constitutional Convention and then to shape the new government. Historically, our best political leaders have worked in the same way. Like all charismatic leaders, they paid close attention to their public image (Washington’s reserve, Lincoln’s beard, FDR’s wheelchair), but saving the country depended not on their special abilities as uniquely endowed saviors, but on their capacity for reminding Americans that self-government was at stake. To the extent that we love them, we love them less as individuals than as representations of what it means to work toward a more perfect union. When we set them up in stone, it is because they were servants of something higher than themselves.