He’s made fun of war veterans, mocked disabled journalists, and there are even reports his combative style is fuelling bullying in schools across the United States.
But Donald Trump’s bid to become US President is enduring far longer than anyone anticipated. Each time his campaign courts scandal, or his words spark public outrage, Trump emerges from the resulting media circus more popular than before. It doesn’t matter how outrageously he acts: the normal rules of politics do not seem to apply to Donald J. Trump.
The phenomenon may indeed seem ‘incredible’. But for millions of Americans, Trump’s tactics appear perfectly reasonable. Why are so many prepared to overlook the Republican candidate’s bullying streak?
Written in the desolation of Germany at the end of the First World War, Politics as a Vocation secured Max Weber’s place in history as one of the founding fathers of modern social science. Almost 100 years later, the political economist’s groundbreaking essay is still relevant. It even offers hints as to why the Trump juggernaut has come to be so powerful.
Politics as a Vocation charts the emergence of a new kind of politics, one characterized by politicians who don’t need to rely on force or brute power. Armed with personalities rather than weapons, these leaders rise to prominence by virtue of their charismatic authority. Weber suggests that because the gravity of their persona is so strong, citizens are compelled to consent to their rule.
No matter the relative merits of the policies of Trump’s opponents; their personalities pale in comparison to his. Just as in the UK Labour Party’s leadership election last year, a wily outsider with a radically different voiceis capitalizing on a weak field of uninspiring candidates.
For Weber, however, it is not enough for politicians to have charisma. They must also be seen as capable of making rational choices that are in the best interest of the state they will serve. In the eyes of his critics – and even people in his own political party – Trump is not nearly rational enough to match this aspect of Weber’s requirements.
Kicking against the establishment
Whether or not it is desirable in principle, Weber viewed the idea that the masses can actually play a direct role in politics or government as deeply unrealistic. It’s no surprise then that Politics as a Vocation has come to be seen as a foundational text in the “elitist” school of thought, a canon that argues social affairs are or should be controlled by small groups of elites.
Intriguingly, much that is irrepressible about the real estate magnate stems from his status as an establishment-outsider. As odd as it may seem, Trump’s background as an ultra-wealthy financial powerhouse is not stopping him from appealing to voters who distrust and even hate Washington elites. He’s different: not conforming to the super-professionalized image projected by most mainstream politicians, the Republican candidate is as far away from Weber’s sharp-suited technocrat as it is possible to be.
Right now, that gives him serious appeal. Trump’s rise comes at a time of widespread and growing mistrust of politics in developed democracies across the world. People are losing faith in politicians and showing up in fewer and fewer numbers at the polls. The ‘free world’ is fed up with politics-as-usual.
The elite-bashing mantra is so popular that left wing supporters of the similarly anti-establishment Bernie Sanders are willing to commit political treason to avoid another mainstream Presidency: if they can’t vote Sanders, 20 percent will vote for Trump over the other Democratic candidate and elite-exemplar, Hillary Clinton.
In many ways, it seems we are watching the dawning of a post-Weber political landscape. While Weber looked at how professionalization changed politics, we now see how deprofessionalization – a backlash against the uniform, Ivy League and Oxbridge-educated career politician – is changing politics, and especially the voting habits of the public.
Psychology alert – you may be irrational
But if Weber offers only some of the answers, the question remains: why are many Americans voting against their own politics? How are they able to set aside their deepest beliefs to vote for someone they should technically detest? According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, it’s because our minds are hardwired to be at peace with the decisions they make.
In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger explains how our brains will do anything to ensure their thoughts are in harmony – even when they seem mutually exclusive. When faced with two different ideas – i.e. playing football and playing basketball – our brains have three ways of resolving the problem and dealing with the distress the conflict causes; we can change our ideas (I don’t like basketball anymore), add new ideas that alter the magnitude of dissonance (I play basketball all the time, today I will play football), or reduce the importance of the ideas that are causing dissonance (it doesn’t matter what I play, I’ll have a fun time either way).
Though many voters disagree with Trump’s brash nature, Festinger’s theory suggests they unconsciously deploy these psychological techniques and thus justify their decision to vote against their normal, rational selves. Because voters want to break up the establishment so badly, the bullying tactics turn into a positive, coming across as the nature of a strong leader who is capable of taking effective action.
“It is a very interesting phenomenon and it has reached the point where Trump can get away with almost anything,” says psychologist Daniel Kahneman. “The bully is immutable, it is in his nature, that is what he does, and once you convince people that it is normal for you to do that kind of thing, you can get away with things that nobody else could get away with.”
Trump: the authentic bully
Trump is, in other words, an authentic bully. Like Weber’s prototype charismatic leader, the man who promises to Make America Great Again lives for and embodies his vision, reinforcing its message relentlessly on television and social media – even in the face of unrelenting criticism from others. His brand of authority is imbued with a fundamental charisma. Not only are his politics larger than life, they are, undeniably, his.
The appetite for maverick leaders like Trump is causing much anxiety among members of the political mainstream. They fear his rise poses a serious threat to the sustainability of democratic society. They point out that politics is by nature a difficult and complicated occupation and, no matter how simple populist rhetoric makes matters seem, there are few black and white answers to the questions Trump and co. will face when they get into power.
But challenging the legitimacy of charismatic and populist candidates like Trump is just one of many actions the political establishment must take if they are to win back the initiative. Rather than relying on theorists like Weber, they must now prove mainstream politics can still deliver answers by putting forward a new politician of their own – one who can convince an anti-elitist electorate pining for the deprofessionalization, devolution and humanization of politics and power. Only then will they be able to present a new vision that gives the people a reason to vote against the bullies.
Get a deeper understanding of Weber and Festinger’s ideas:
- Expert analysis of Max Weber’s Politics as a Vocation and Leon Festinger’s A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
- Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
- David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
- John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government