Caitlin Andrews-Lee is an Assistant Professor in Ryerson University’s Department of Politics and Public Administration. She is the author of the book, The Emergence and Revival of Charismatic Movements: Argentine Peronism and Venezuelan Chavismo.
Charismatic leaders who are intent on governing solely using their charismatic authority and subverting other things to their personal power are inherently bad for democracy and inherently illiberal. They’re anti-pluralist. They don’t want to share their power with others even within their own movement or their own party. They don’t tolerate dissent.
- A profile on Juan Perón, the prototypical charismatic leader
- Why has Peronism survived its founder?
- Why do the anointed successors of charismatic leaders fail?
- How do new personalistic leaders arise out of charismatic movements?
- Is Donald Trump a harbinger of future charismatic leaders or was he an historical aberration?
Last week we discussed democratic backsliding. Most of you will likely recall how Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman emphasized the importance of removing a personalistic leader from power. But they also emphasized this was merely a first step.
Today’s guest Caitlin Andrews-Lee argues charismatic movements do not fall apart after their leader is gone. Moreover, these movements make it likely for new charismatic leaders to emerge in the future. In other words, the emergence of a Modi or Erdoğan or even Trump is often the first of many personalistic leaders once a charismatic movement develops.
Caitlin Andrews-Lee is an Assistant Professor in Ryerson University’s Department of Politics and Public Administration. She is the author of the book, The Emergence and Revival of Charismatic Movements: Argentine Peronism and Venezuelan Chavismo.
Our conversation explores the origins of charismatic leaders and their movements, but also how those movements survive after the departure of their founder. I personally find her ideas have real implications for the current political era because so many leaders are described as personalistic or charismatic. So, you’ll likely find our conversation complements last week’s episode about democratic backsliding.
But before we start, I want to thank Jim McAdams. He wrote a review on Podcast Republic which said, “This is a terrific podcast. There are some people I know (including a few colleagues); even more people whom I would like to know.” Thanks again to everyone who continues to show support for the show. You can reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DemParadox. But for now this is my conversation with Caitlin Andrews-Lee…
Caitlin Andrews-Lee, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks so much for having me.
Well Caitlin, your book is about charismatic movements and I don’t think that there’s any other way that I can imagine beginning than to begin with the prototypical charismatic leader, Juan Perón. Quite a few guests have mentioned Juan Perón in the past on this podcast, but it’s always in passing. I just kind of take for granted that everybody knows who he is, but I’ll be honest, when I read through your book, I realized how little I actually knew about Juan Perón myself. So, why don’t we start there? Can you provide some background on Juan Perón and explain how he fits your model of charismatic leadership?
Absolutely. So, Juan Perón, as you mentioned, is widely considered as kind of the quintessential charismatic leader. So, if we go back into the 1930s and early 1940s in Argentina, this is on the heels of the Great Depression. Argentina had experienced a massive agricultural collapse and many citizens who were in a kind of agricultural, rural setting moved into cities and were really kind of displaced citizens. And many of them sought work in the budding industrial sector. But they were truly displaced. Many didn’t have work. If they had work, they were terribly mistreated and so, they were really in crisis.
So, Perón comes along. He’s a colonel in the military and he sees an opportunity to take a position as Minister of Labor. Now this position had been hardly a position at all in government and in my interviews with some statesmen they have stated that it was laughable that Perón wanted this position of all the things, because it was not at all prestigious. It was referred to as an elephant’s graveyard, but Perón saw in this a crucial opportunity. And so, what he did as Minister of Labor is he started to grant rights and protections to these workers that they had never before experienced and desperately needed.
And so, he began to gain prominence, perhaps not with the upper echelons of the elite, but with the masses who very importantly had the right to vote unlike their ancestors or one generation prior who had largely immigrated from Southern Europe. So, he starts to gain components of charisma though the direct recognition of people’s suffering and the granting of benefits to resolve that suffering, through unprecedented rights which he then later fulfilled even further as president in the form of increased wages, vacation, homes, all kinds of rights and benefits that people never would have dreamed of prior to his rise.
So, even before he’s president, even before he takes significant power, people are already looking to him as somebody who is a significant leader in Argentina and somebody who’s taken on the mantle of this charismatic leadership already. Right?
That’s correct and the reason is because he’s seeing these people in a way that they have never felt seen before. So, that direct recognition that he is kind of unilaterally granting from the top down, but nonetheless is really turning people’s heads. There’s a real, genuine appreciation for that recognition of their hardship and their suffering and their need to have a better life.
But he’s arrested on October 12th, 1945 for this kind of work that he’s been doing. It backfires on the military. It is a terrible strategy because the millions of Argentines, the masses that he had recognized come out in droves demanding his release. So, they fill the Plaza de Mayo which is the big plaza in front of the pink house, the Casa Rosada, in downtown Bueno Aires in a way that there’s a huge level of mobilization that’s really kind of unprecedented and shocks the military. So, they panic. They release Perón. And he’s very shortly after that elected in a landslide to become president of the country.
Wow. It’s interesting, because I don’t think that I can recall who the Secretary of Labor is in the United States right now myself and yet these people in Argentina really went to bat for somebody who was Minister of Labor. Like you said, it wasn’t a prestigious position. And to be honest with you, it’s still not a prestigious position in most countries. So, how did he maintain this level of charisma after he’s elected president. How does this all fit in together as a sense of what you consider to be part of your model of this founding charismatic leader?
Right. So, he’s elected and becomes president in 1946. And the popular mandate that he has is truly impressive. He’s just massively popular and there’s really nothing that the military or elites who are part of the authoritarian regime that proceeded him can really do about it. And he can use that to consolidate impressive authority on his own. So, I call this the consolidation of hegemonic authority. And so, he takes his popular mandate. He establishes a new constitution that benefits him and he can really follow through on some of the benefits that I mentioned before to his followers.
And this isn’t necessarily in a kind of purely materialistic or quid pro quo kind of way, but in that kind of granting of recognition that granting of salvation. And he does this crucially with his partner Evita, his second wife, who plays a crucial role in that in serving not just the workers, but the Argentine poor. And they also, through import substitute industrialization, similar to other countries in the region at the time, achieve tremendous economic growth in a way that benefits their followers. This occurs for a relatively short period of time. So, there’s tremendous growth and prosperity from about 1946 to 1949. This is part of what I call the bold performance, the approbation, the proving of the charismatic leader’s capacity to save the people. And there’s a really important quality here that it is in its boldness and its audacity.
It is also inherently short-sighted. So, the leader is willing to prioritize this short-term impressive Impact at the expense of investing in things that will make it last. Policies that tend to endure and achieve progress are more painstaking and slow and incremental. And that is not going to work for a charismatic leader to prove himself or herself. So, he achieves this impressive growth and impressive benefits for his followers who really feel like the workers have a place at the table for the first time. So, they really do feel that they have a voice, but importantly they look to and are inherently grateful to Perón for having granted that to them. And then things start to decline a little bit after that. And some of the cracks In these policies that were impressive, but problematic start to reveal themselves.
However, because Perón has this firm foundation in charismatic attachments with his followers, he has what scholars of charisma called the Teflon shield. So, he doesn’t receive blame for performance that starts to falter. Moving forward in 1955, he’s ousted by a military coup, which was the best thing that could have happened for his legacy, because the military and then other political leaders both within and beyond his ranks received the blame kind of historically. And this is what gets spun into the narrative that I argue is the third component of charismatic attachments that really helps sustain this kind of heroic legacy of the founder that kind of provides the backbone that future politicians rely on and that voters and followers of the movement remember even after the leader is gone.
There’s a lot to unpack there. So, the reason why Perón fits this idea of the charismatic leader is that he was able to recognize the pain and suffering of the people. He then did something materially for them. That they felt that he didn’t just understand it, but he actually delivered results. And then fortunately he was removed from power. So, nobody recognized that any of the downsides of his policies, none of them seem to affect him. The blame was placed on other people. So, that’s an interesting dynamic that seems to exist very rarely throughout history I would imagine. Obviously, Venezuela is one case.
But at the same time this idea of Peronism is odd, because it’s continued to live on and there continue to be Peronists in Argentina. The president currently is Peronist. Why don’t we leap forward and just explain what’s really kept this idea of Peronism alive? Obviously, people can lionize Perón, but why is it that they see themselves as Peronists? And why is it that they elect leaders who claim to be Peronists? What is it that they’re representing? Because they’re not Juan Perón.
This is the million dollar question that really motivated my research on this. And so why has Peronism endured? What is it that even makes Peronism? A running joke in Argentina is to try to define Peronism, because it’s so elusive and the way that I try to answer this question was not by trying to find some consistent ideological thread that holds the movement together. One will find very quickly that it’s very difficult to do that because there have been such dramatic swings over time within the movement. Also, if you look at party development, there’s some degree of institutionalization of the Peronist party, but it’s also undergone quite a few crises. There have been quite a few Interruptions of democracy as well. So, there’s a tremendous amount of volatility.
So, what is it that makes this keep enduring? And the way that I asked that question was from what I refer to as the demand side which is what do voters see in Peronism? Why do they continue today to identify as Peronist and why is it of value to them to elect a leader who claims to be Peronist? The reason I think is that founding myth of Peron himself and also really his wife, you know, themselves as a duo. And the way that they directly recognized people’s suffering, provided more prosperity, at least according to the legend, than Argentines have ever seen, and really consolidated this role as Argentine saviors willing to go to bat for the people against their enemies who are trying to undermine their wellbeing forms not just an attachment or an attraction to the leader.
But this kind of profound political identity that is just as resilient as an identity with a party or a particular Ideology or a set of programs or to a set of organizations or a sense of belonging to the Catholic church, for example. So, this resilient form of identity takes shape for voters that can get, just like other political identities, can get passed across generations. And that can become more or less politically salient and that can become politically activated under certain conditions.
So, when there’s a crisis that erupts, people feel the need to be saved. And so who do they look for? A prototypical savior. Well, who is a prototypical savior, especially in Argentina, especially if all of your loved ones have photos of him next to photos of Christ on their bedside table? It’s going to be Perón. And this, I argue, provides powerful incentives for contemporary politicians to tap into that narrative and somehow associate themselves with that myth of salvation.
Now, Caitlin, a lot of people who just listened to you, the way that you explain it, I’m sure that they’re thinking, ‘Oh, that sounds so obvious and she’s making so much sense. This sounds perfectly natural.’ I want to take a second and recognize how you’re really breaking from previous scholarship. And you’re actually making a significant contribution to the idea of charisma in this work. And in this conversation, we go back to the real scholar about charismatic leadership, Max Weber. He wrote, “Charisma is a phenomenon typical of prophetic movements or of expansive political movements in their early stages. But as soon as domination is well established, and above all as soon as control over large masses of people exists, it gives way to the forces of everyday routine.”
So, you’re making the case that charisma does not give way. It exists, it just lies dormant. In your book, you write, “charismatic movements can dramatically shape the political system for decades after the founder disappears.” So, rather than becoming institutionalized, this sense of charisma, this charismatic movement continues to live on and re-emerges during moments of crisis. Can you talk a little bit about how a charismatic movement continues to shape politics even after a leader like Perón has disappeared, where a leader like Chavez has disappeared?
So, Max Weber and most scholars who have studied charisma or adjacent concepts agree with him that charisma or personalism requires the physical presence of the leader to constantly reinforce the attachment, because after all the attachment is to the person rather to some kind of organization. I think that this line of thought, which, Weber and others called routinization, or rather, the related concepts that when the physical presence of the leader is absent this gives way to some kind of inexorable force of routine or in other political parlance institutionalization. Right? So, that if you don’t have the leader, you have institutions and other depersonalized forms of authority that kind of take back over. And I argue that this really overestimates the power and strength of institutions.
And what I have found in my research is that. people’s Identification with and loyalty towards a person and the narrative, what they promised society, can affect their worldview, the way that they view their reality. Their expectations of politics and expectations of politicians can impact their world view much more profoundly than institutions. It’s in this context where there is such a strong protagonist at the helm who actively undermines those institutions. So, the reason I argue this lives on and on is in part because of that resilient identity and partly because the charismatic leader him or herself has actively during their rule tried to consolidate this personalistic form of authority which actively undermines the institutions and networks and people that would be required to make routinization happen.
In other words, a charismatic leader almost disrupts the political ecosystem if you will. People stop looking to institutions to be able to solve their problems. And they’re going to look for a new charismatic leader down the road. And so, a country like Argentina is no longer an exception. It becomes the norm. Once you break that cycle of institutionalization and you Inject a true charismatic movement into the political environment, Peronism becomes almost inevitable rather than being something that’s an exception to the political system. Am I reading that right?
That’s exactly right and Max Weber himself said that charismatic leadership and the rise of a charismatic movement is a disruption of the norm, but he viewed it as a brief punctuation that then returns to life as usual thereafter. And curiously, Madsen and Snow referred to it as a searing reorientation of people’s relationship with politics and the political system. What I am simply arguing is that searing reorientation doesn’t just bounce back. It’s actually much stickier and more profound and can endure a lot of other kinds of volatility, other forms of attachment that other forms of institutions can’t withstand as easily. And so, it’s this very powerful and very resilient political force that becomes very difficult to banish from the system once it’s risen.
And we’re going to dive in deep into this, but just to take a moment to recognize the significance of what you’re saying. In an era that is being defined by personalistic leaders throughout the world right now both in authoritarian and in democratic regimes. This insight that you’ve got has enormous implications. It’s saying that when we have the rise of a personalistic charismatic leader, it’s not just going to be a brief interregnum. It could actually have an impact on the politics of that country for generations to come. So, obviously the transition is never gentle from the charismatic leader to a successor. And you write quite a bit about anointed successors and how they rarely have the charisma of the founding leader and oftentimes fail. Why does that happen?
So, the politics of succession and the way that charismatic movements unfold after the leader disappears, after the founder disappears is very important for shaping the trajectory of these movements which while being enduring is actually quite volatile and what I call spasmodic. It comes with a meteoric rise of the charismatic founder followed by at least a partial collapse and a period without a charismatic leader or, you know, enter the failure of many anointed successors or opponents who can’t get their act together If they come into power afterwards followed by the rise of another charismatic leader. So, going into that moment where the charismatic leader disappears. Oftentimes, they will anoint a successor and this can happen when the founder dies or if they’re banished like Perón was exiled, Chavez died of cancer.
So, it can take various forms, but when the charismatic leader can no longer be in power in name or even in body in the case of Chavez, they still don’t want to cede power. It’s in their nature for those who prioritize governing purely using their charismatic authority. They do not want to share power with anybody else, because they are after all the savior and they have actively distanced themselves and weakened anybody else around them who seems like a threat to that power. So, who are they going to share their power with when forced to? They’re most likely to share it with somebody who is 100% loyal and guaranteed not to overshadow them so they can continue governing, as irrational or illogical as it may sound, from the background whether that’s in death after life or from another country.
So, they’re just very resistant to the idea of sharing their legacy and their power with anybody else. And so, by design the people who succeed them, these anointed successors, who they handpick as their personal preference for replacement are almost by definition, weaklings, sycophants who will do anything to support and remain loyal to and deferential to the founder. But it doesn’t make for a recipe for a tremendously compelling, strategic, and powerful leader. In addition to that, the successors of any kind inherit all kinds of problems from the charismatic founder. They inherit these shortsighted policies that have a tremendously popular legacy, but have all kinds of problems which make them very difficult to reform and along with that, they inherit kind of an impending collapse or crisis in society.
And if it happens, then they get blamed for it because nobody’s going to blame the beloved founder. And in fact, the collapse is most likely to happen under the successor, which is not a great look. And while policy reform is often needed, it’s very difficult to reform on the heels of the founder because it looks like they’re defying the founder’s legacy. And so, they kind of have a catch-22 in addition to lacking the skill and ambition of being a powerful leader by just having been chosen by the charismatic founder.
I don’t think that there’s a better example of this than Nicolás Maduro over in Venezuela. He takes over the presidency, like you said, after Chavez dies and to put it subtly things have not gone well. How do Chavistas, the people who really supported Hugo Chavez, the people that really support him even today, how did they view Nicolás Maduro now?
It’s interesting. There is not a uniform perception of Nicolás Maduro among Chavistas. I conducted focus groups… So, what often happens when new leaders come to power whether they are these anointed successors or what I call self-starters who rise to power often times years later is that there’s often a bifurcation in followers where some see this person as the convincing true heir of the founder and some think that they’re a fraud. These followers are uniform in their love for an attachment to the founder, but they have disagreements over the successors. In Venezuela, I conducted interviews and focus groups with Chavista followers. I split them into those who support Maduro and those who do not.
And for those who supported Maduro, they did not view him as another Chavez. They did not view him as a savior. They acknowledged the problems. And this was back in 2015. So, things have further deteriorated since then, but things were not great in 2015 when maduro had been in power for two to three years. They supported Maduro precisely because Chavez asked them to. So, when Chavez was on his death bed, he made this public appearance on television in December saying from the bottom of my heart, desde el corazón, I want you to support Nicolás Maduro. And desde el corazón became the campaigns slogan for Maduro.
And he is, as you mentioned, the best example, I think of an anointed successor who is willing to just declare total loyalty to Chavez and his legacy and lean extremely heavily on it as his, basically, his only source of real popular legitimacy. So, it’s interesting that even those who supported Maduro did so out of respect for Chavez. And they say, ‘Well, he’s trying. We all try our best, you know, he’s not perfect, but nobody is.’ And nobody would ever speak about Chavez that way. And now those who did not support Maduro who identify as Chavista were relentless in their critique of him.
And what they did and what followers often do with leaders who they find unimpressive, who claim to be part of the movement, is they identified him as a bad Chavista. And they said ‘We are more Chavista than Maduro is. He’s a fake Chavista. You know, he’s a fraud. He betrayed Chavez. He’s a traitor.’ And so, I think this is a really important point because followers who don’t like new leaders don’t dilute their attachments to the movement, because of that poor leadership. Instead, they’re able to disassociate those leaders from the founder and the movement, because the attachment is profoundly personal between them and the founder.
So, I found that there’s three different leadership types within these charismatic movements. There’s the founder. So, we’ve already talked about two: Perón and Hugo Chavez. Those are two different types of founders. We could name more I’m sure. Then we have the anointed successor who is doomed to fail and they’re going to struggle.
But you have a third type which is a self-starter is how you describe them. And Bolivarian Socialism hasn’t been around long enough to see a self-starter really appear in Venezuela, but we have quite a few over in Argentina. So, we could talk about Menem. We could talk about the Kirchners. But the self-starters are not founding charismatic leaders. They depend on their linkage back to the founder. I’m curious. Does this self-starter, as they establish their own form of charisma, while they claim this lineage from the movement’s founder, are they some form of diminished charismatic leader or do they establish their own founding tradition if they survive long enough?
It’s a great question and I think you put it perfectly that they are diminished forms of the founder despite their best efforts over time. So, these leaders I argue are self-starters. So, unlike anointed successors who are kind of by default chosen by the founder. They’re able to have quite a bit more autonomy to reshape the narrative and their set of policies in a way that is different from the founder. And that is not in the founder’s shadow. The other important thing is they rise at a time when people are what I call charisma hungry.
So, just like when Perón rose in the midst of this big crisis of displacement and people were needing that recognition and that savior, self-starters, I argue, are much more likely to succeed when they rise in a similar kind of crisis. And then they are able to tap into people’s preexisting attachments with the founder and this belief in a savior, this active search for a savior who is similar to the founder in order to rise to power themselves. As Menem did so beautifully really in the late 1980s. So, there were several Peronists candidates in the primaries of the elections in 1988 in Argentina. Argentina was experiencing a profound crisis of hyperinflation that the president Alfonsin, who was not a Peronist, stepped down early.
But during the campaign there were many different Peronists saying that Peronism was all these different things. And Menem succeeded in convincing people about what Peronism was and the fact that he was the true Peronist because he was able to successfully use his own charisma to tap into the myth of Perón and this idea of a savior. And says, ‘Look, I know that you’re suffering. I see that. I recognize that and I’m going to fix that. And in fact, I’m going to fix it just like Perón fixed the problems of former generations of Argentines.’
But he approached it completely differently. He approached it with extremely neoliberal policies and what’s amazing about Peronism in Argentina is the next self-starters, the Kirchners, approach it from the complete opposite direction. There’s no ideological continuity between any of these leaders, even though they all claim to be part of the same movement.
Exactly. So, there’s no ideological or programmatic continuity. There’s perfect continuity in the way that they claim they will save the people from crisis in the same way that Perón did. And in fact, Menem directly said during his campaign and also as president that, ‘If Perón were here, he would be doing exactly what I am doing now,’ which is a great example of how he had the freedom to pivot and also shape the narrative to go back to Perón. Now, crucially, he didn’t do this on his own. He benefited from being able to tap into people’s attachments with Perón and Peronism.
And while his policies were a complete reversal of kind of state centered economic policies in their brutal neo-liberalism, they did provide people with very swift relief from hyperinflation for example. So, the convertibility plan pegging the Argentine peso to the US dollar brought people an incredible amount of consumer power that they didn’t have before and it brought hyperinflation down. And so, it really was a tremendous improvement in their lives.
So, as we look at this from a broader level, as we get past Argentina itself, one of the things that’s lurking in the background is the idea that charismatic leaders are bad for democracy. That they oftentimes emerge in democratic situations, and there is scholarship to say that they exist in authoritarian and totalitarian governments as well, but in particular that when they arise under democratic governments that it often leads to things like backsliding. And you do write in the book, “The fitful trajectories of charismatic movements infuse democracies with illiberal tendencies and expose them to serious authoritarian threats.” But I’d like to double check with you on this one. Are charismatic leaders always authoritarians or can democratic or liberal democratic leaders also be charismatic?
I think there’s an important difference here between charisma as a property of leadership and charismatic authority which is leaders who use that charisma and use the attachments with their followers that result from it in order to govern. So, I argue that charismatic leaders who are intent on governing solely using their charismatic authority and subverting other things to their personal power are inherently bad for democracy and inherently illiberal. They’re anti-pluralist. They don’t want to share their power with others even within their own movement or their own party. They don’t tolerate dissent. Even though, oftentimes, charismatic leaders with illiberal tendencies don’t overtly repress people. They, as we have seen in the cases of Perón and Evita and then especially Chavez in Venezuela, they do a lot to minimize the voices of those who disagree with them.
And so, I think that charismatic leaders who are intent on consolidating charismatic authority above all else are bad for democracy. However, leaders of all kinds have charisma and people of all kinds have charisma. So, I showed briefly in my book that charisma exists outside of the political sphere as well. So, within the political arena, there are leaders in democratic societies who have charisma like Lula in Brazil and like Obama in the United States and there are people for whom their charisma resonates very strongly. And so, there are charismatic attachments that form. Crucially, however, these leaders subvert their charismatic authority to institutions and to a programmatic way of governing.
So, Obama, especially in his 2008 campaign, you can see real elements of this kind of charismatic persona. And that was very helpful for mobilizing people to vote for him. At the end of the day, however, he was intent on governing in an institutional and democratic way, going through Congress rather than undermining it, for example. And he also didn’t take personal credit, single-handedly for his achievements in a way that a charismatic leader would do. So, even though there are others who would attribute things perhaps single-handedly to him, he himself at the end of the day, he gave his charismatic authority a back seat to programmatic and liberal democratic rule. Lula did the same in Brazil.
For the most part, interestingly, their charisma created some problems in terms of succession. For example, they were very difficult to replace and a society kind of experienced some rough consequences from that in both cases. So, there are some elements of charisma that can benefit and also challenge leaders in a liberal democratic setting. At the other end of the spectrum, you can have charismatic leaders in totalitarian settings, such as Hitler or Mao, and they too form direct, unmediated, deeply emotional, and asymmetrical top-down attachments with their followers. But they subvert their charismatic authority to totalitarian tactics such as a massive ideological project of transformation of communism or of, Naziism which is much more than just Hitler’s charismatic persona. And so, they also subverted their charismatic authority, but it was to brutal and repressive totalitarian tactics.
So, charisma can exist across the spectrum of forms of government, but what I focus on and what I think is interesting and particularly relevant today is these leaders who are intent on exercising power through their charismatic authority in the purest form they possibly can.
So, you mentioned Obama as a charismatic leader and the United States in particular seems to encourage charisma through the office of the presidency. There has to be some kind of connection. People oftentimes say that the reason why they voted for a candidate is because they imagine they could sit down and have a beer with them. When we look at the history of the American presidency, it also seems like we always trace our roots back to earlier presidents, notably George Washington, but also Abraham Lincoln and more recently, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Can these leaders also be seen as founding charismatic leaders in their own right, but maybe not such a dark version as we look at for somebody like Perón or especially Chavez?
I don’t think that it’s a different type of leader, like a different type of charisma. I think that these leaders use the same tactics in terms of direct recognition, bold performance to prove themselves and a narrative to kind of consolidate their rule. But at the end of the day, these leaders also governed with their party rather than undermining it. And they combined their charisma with other forms of rule. And I think that that makes a big difference.
So, it’s hard to get inside of a leader’s head to prove things, but you can say either they didn’t want to or they were unable to. Maybe they had a preference for democracy instead and truly wanted to be public servants. And so, they subverted their charismatic authority. Maybe they tried and they weren’t able to, because the crisis wasn’t deep enough or it didn’t resonate with people to the same extent to create this kind of overwhelming societal force.
I guess what’s interesting to me is not the leader themselves, the founding leader, like a Washington or a Roosevelt or Lincoln. But the way that future leaders refer back to them the same way that a Menem or a Kirchner, even when they have tremendous amounts of charisma, refer back to a Perón. I see a parallel there in terms of the way that American presidents refer back to earlier presidents for their source of legitimacy, for the type of leader they are, for the type of decisions that they’re choosing to make.
I definitely think it’s a similar phenomenon. This referral to past charismatic leaders in order to improve one’s own image does tap into people’s affection for and tie to those previous leaders and these powerful feelings of nostalgia, for example. And the tendency for that to make them look towards a rosier future or to view the person who’s referring to these people as more charismatic themselves. And, as you mentioned, In the real world this happens all over the place. People are mentioning previous charismatic leaders. So, I think that is a really important piece of this that shows that charisma can also live on in diminished forms in all kinds of societies.
So, to get back to one of your examples with Hugo Chavez, you described him as a founding charismatic leader. But what I found interesting was that in many ways he was actually referring back to an even earlier charismatic leader himself. He was referring back to Simón Bolívar with the idea of Bolivarian Socialism. Do these founding charismatic leaders at the end of the day, are they really just reincarnations of other charismatic leaders from the past?
It’s a great question. I think that the more time passes, the more leeway the next leader has. And we see this in Argentina. The Kirchners have tried during their rule to a much greater extent than Menem to actually break away from Peronism and establish their own unique brand of Kirchnerismo. Interestingly, they never quite succeeded and they always end up coming back to the Peronist fold when hard times come around now. I suppose you could think of Chavez as a self-starter coming after Bolívar. Bolívar ruled in the 19th century. I think it’s a question of what he even represented. And what his project actually was is largely irrelevant. Chavez had really the wherewithal and the capacity to shape that narrative in a way that was tremendously helpful for him. But charismatic founders also draw all the time on past figures.
So, Bolívar was framed certainly as a charismatic leader, as a savior, as a liberator. But in addition to Bolívar, Chavez referred to other past inspirational figures in Venezuelan history. He even tied himself to Christ in a similar way. So, I think that this is a really important part and I think that Perón certainly also drew on past figures and traditional kind of Argentine heroes to bolster his own image.
So, Caitlin, as we’re kind of wrapping up, I want to get back to this idea from the quote that I read earlier. The idea that charismatic movements exist for decades, maybe even generations after the founder disappears. The United States has just undergone its own charismatic populist leader in Donald Trump who is out of power. Now, he may choose to run again for the presidency. Either way, will new charismatic leaders emerge in the United States that will eventually succeed Donald Trump or will he simply be viewed as an historical aberration?
I think that Donald Trump’s rise and certainly his consolidation of a charismatic movement should not be underestimated in its staying power. And I think that we see evidence after his presidency and as we gear up for the 2024 elections that Trumpism is not going anywhere anytime soon. We see this in the way that the people who are followers of Trump remain loyal and devoted to him despite, by many measures, poor performance or a collapse of his promises. We see this in the way that new leaders and existing leaders within the Republican party are increasingly trying to associate themselves with Trump and his legacy in order to capture the favor of his followers. Even those that are openly reluctant to do so are shunned from the party.
So, I think that this demonstrates how much people’s charismatic attachments to leaders endure and caused them to shift their perceptions and expectations of politics and politicians to fit that mold. So, I think that Trumpism is not going anywhere anytime soon at least. It is difficult and dangerous as political scientists to predict the future. But I think that this will be a formidable force to contend with in the future.
Well, Caitlin, thank you so much for joining me. Your book, The Emergence and Revival of Charismatic Movements, is really remarkable. It’s one of those books that the ideas continue to percolate in my mind all the time as I read current events in the news. And I think about the idea of these charismatic movements particularly in the United States never completely disappearing. So, It’s a really impressive work. Thank you so much for writing it.
Thank you so much. I’m really honored and I’m thrilled that that you had that experience.
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