The Charismatic Politics of Social Media
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: TABLET MAGAZINE

This essay was originally published by Tablet Magazine on 21st April 2021.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, the tone of politics has become much quieter, and not just in the United States. It’s amazing how much room this man’s personality took up in the public conversation. But we should remember that what silenced Trump was not losing an election in November 2020. It was being kicked off social media after his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The decision to take away Trump’s megaphone was the natural outcome of a phenomenon that emerged around 2015, when politics was transformed by a new type of charismatic leader, unique to our own era, who emerged from a culture increasingly centered around social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. But Trump is just one example, albeit a dramatic one. On the left there is also Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the Opposition in the United Kingdom. There is the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and the cult philosopher Jordan Peterson. These men and women “went viral,” their individual charisma spread by a new, decentralized media system, and they galvanized movements that defined themselves as fighting against the established order.

Some of these figures’ time in the limelight is already over. But others will take their place, because the forces that gave rise to them are still here. To understand their appeal, we only have to turn to the influential German sociologist of the early 20th century, Max Weber. It was Weber who popularized “charisma” as a political term. And it is Weber’s concept of charismatic leadership that seems more relevant now than ever before.

Born 157 years ago tomorrow, Weber lived at a time when Western societies, and Germany especially, were being transformed by industrialization at a frantic pace. The central aim of his work was to understand how modern societies evolved and functioned in contrast to those of the past. Hailed as a brilliant young intellectual, Weber suffered a nervous breakdown around the turn of the 20th century, and subsequently produced a gloomy account of the modern world that was to be his greatest legacy. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1905, he argued that the foundation of modernity was an ultrarational approach to organizing our lives and institutions, especially in pursuit of profit—a culture he compared to an “iron cage.”

It is against this backdrop that we find Weber’s most famous ideas about charismatic leadership. There was, he observed, a weak point in the iron cage of rationality. The modern principle that the right to govern comes from the people created an opening for charismatic politicians to gain immense power by winning the adoration of the masses. In his influential 1919 lecture Politics as a Vocation, Weber suggested the best example of this was the 19th-century British politician William Gladstone. But after Weber’s death in 1920, his theory of charismatic leadership achieved new renown, as it seemed to predict the dictatorships of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin.

A century later, Weber’s vision of “dictatorship resting on the exploitation of mass emotionality” fits nicely into the current moment, and may even have fed the reflexive portrayal of Trump as some sort of proto-fascist ruler. But in fact, this understanding of political charisma as purely a tool of modern demagogues is a misreading of Weber’s ideas.

Weber believed that charismatic individuals shape the politics of every era. A charismatic leader, he wrote in the posthumously published Economy and Society, has “a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” For Weber, the crucial element is to understand that charisma has a social function. He didn’t see charisma merely as a character trait belonging solely to the leader. He saw the desire to follow charismatic individuals as a necessary ingredient that binds groups of people together. Hence, when he laid out the three forms of authority that organize all societies, he included “charismatic authority” alongside legal structures and tradition.

What’s more, this mutually binding power of charisma doesn’t only sustain societies, according to Weber—it also transforms them. He actually thought the purest example of charismatic authority came from religious movements led by prophets, of the kind that shaped the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Here Weber describes charisma as a “revolutionary force,” because of the way prophets unite their followers with a sense of confidence and conviction that can shatter existing structures of authority. Charisma is like a spark that ignites sweeping social and cultural change.

This is the Weberian insight that opens the door to understanding the charismatic leaders of our own time. To grasp what makes an individual charismatic, we shouldn’t just focus on their personality: We should look at the people who are brought together by their mutual recognition of a leader.

Today, the social basis for much political ideology and activism comes from online subcultures, where people develop common worldviews based on spontaneous and widely shared feelings, like the sense of being betrayed by corrupt elites. It is from these virtual communities that political movements emerge, often by discovering and adopting a charismatic figure that galvanizes them. Through the rapid circulation of video clips and social media posts, an individual can be turned into a leader almost overnight.

What is remarkable about this paradigm is how much the standard relationship between leaders and followers has been reversed: These new movements are not created by their leaders, even though the leaders may command tremendous devotion. The followers “choose” their leader. The movements exist first in an unrealized form, and conjure up leaders that allow them to fully manifest and mobilize themselves.

Weber spoke of charisma being “recognized,” emphasizing the way leaders inspire their followers with a sense of purpose or spiritual “calling.” People gravitate toward individuals who give them a language to express their shared feelings and an example to follow. But what matters most is that, through this collective recognition of a figurehead, the followers cement their own social bond.

When we look at the charismatic leaders who have emerged in recent years, we don’t in fact see authoritarian figures who control their movements and bend their followers to their own distinct political visions. What we see are leaders who rise suddenly and unexpectedly, and whose actual beliefs are less important than their ability to embody the emotions that unite their devotees. Today it is the leaders who are shaped by the attitudes of their movements rather than the other way around.

Thus, Trump’s followers were never all that interested in how effectively he turned campaign slogans into reality. What held the MAGA movement together was not the content of Trump’s rather inconsistent and half-hearted declarations about policy, but the irreverent drama of rebellion that he enacted through the political theater of his rallies and Twitter posts. His leadership gave birth to intense internet communities, where diehard supporters cooked up their own narratives about his struggle against the establishment.

The point isn’t that Trump had no real power over his followers, which of course he did. The point is that his power depended on—and was limited to—the role of culture war icon that his movement created for him. Trump was effective in this role because he had no apparent strategy apart from giving his audience what it wanted, whether photo-ops brandishing a Bible, or nods and winks at online conspiracy theories.

Likewise, Sanders and Corbyn were both old men who unexpectedly found themselves riding tidal waves of youthful support. But their sudden rise from relative obscurity led to some awkward moments when some of their more strongly held views did not align with the wishes of their followers. Sanders’ campaign for president changed significantly from 2016 to 2020, as the mass movement that chose him as its leader molded him into a champion of their immigration preferences, which he had previously opposed. Similarly, in his time as leader of the British Labour Party from 2015 to 2020, Corbyn had to abandon his lifelong opposition to the European Union because he was now leading a movement that cherished EU membership as one of its core values.

Finally, consider two cases from outside the realm of official politics. Greta Thunberg is treated as a modern saint who has inspired millions to march through the world’s cities demanding action against climate change. But Thunberg’s enormous presence in the environmental movement is not matched by a unique philosophy or any organizational power. She went viral on social media during her 2018 strike outside the Swedish parliament, and her fame now rests on being invited by political and religious leaders to shout at them on camera about how her generation has been betrayed. “I understand that people are impressed by this movement,” Thunberg told the Times in 2019, “and I am also very impressed with the young people, but I haven’t really done anything. I have just sat down.”

Then there’s Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Thanks to a few viral videos about free speech in 2016 and a series of controversial media engagements thereafter, Peterson went from teaching Christological interpretations of Disney films to being hailed as the messiah of the anti-woke movement. Peterson has continually stressed that he’s interested in psychology, not politics, yet what followers find captivating are his filmed broadsides against social justice ideology, which have been viewed millions of times on YouTube.

All these figures have been imbued with a certain magical status, which deepens the shared identity of their followers. Movements have gathered around them as totems embodying a fight against injustice and a spirit of revolt. Consequently, they command strong emotional attachments, though their followers are only interested in them insofar as they stay within the limits of the movement they were chosen to lead. The power of their charisma depends, therefore, on conforming to parameters set by the imagination of their followers.

Obviously, individual personality is not irrelevant here. Charismatic figures are generally regarded as authentic, based on the perception that they are not trying to meet social expectations or simply advance their careers. Seen in this way, it makes sense that a generation accustomed to the shifting trends and constant self-promotion of social media would warm to old-timers like Sanders and Corbyn, who had been stoically banging the same drum for decades.

Interestingly, both Trump and Thunberg have often had their personalities pathologized by critics: Trump on account of his “narcissistic personality disorder,” Thunberg on account of her autism and single-minded commitment to her cause. But supporters see these same qualities as refreshingly direct. This kind of appeal is necessary for leaders who want to offer their followers the personal “calling” which Weber saw as key to charisma. No one is inspired to take on the establishment by people who look and sound like they belong to it.

Nonetheless, following Weber’s lead, we don’t need to think about charisma as something that’s simply inherent to these influential personalities. In the sudden explosion of hype surrounding certain figures on social media, we see how the conviction that an individual is special can be created through collective affirmation. This is the virtual equivalent of the electrifying rallies and demonstrations where followers have gathered to see figures like Trump, Corbyn, and Thunberg: The energy is focused on the leader, but it comes from the crowd.

So what does all this tell us about the future of the new charismatic movement politics? Weber insisted that to exercise real power, charismatic authority cannot keep relying on the spiritual calling of committed followers. It must establish its own structures of bureaucracy and tradition. According to Weber, this is how prophetic religious movements of the past created lasting regimes.

But the way that today’s charismatic leaders are chosen for their expressive qualities means they usually aren’t suited to consolidating power in this way. There is a remarkable contrast between the sweeping legislative program being enacted by the uncharismatic Biden presidency and Trump’s failure to deliver on most of his signature proposals.

This does not mean that the movements inspired by charismatic figures are irrelevant—far from it. They will continue to influence politics by reshaping the social and cultural context in which it unfolds. In fact, the potential for these movements is all the more dramatic because, as recent years have shown, they can appear almost out of thin air. We do not know who the next charismatic leaders will be until after they have been chosen.