Charismatic leadership and this last week

I am hopeful about the last week, and that might seem odd.

Train wrecks in public deliberation happen when political issues become factional ones, so that decisions are weighed entirely in terms of whether the ingroup or outgroup wins. And decisions that hurt the outgroup, even if they hurt the ingroup more, are seen as wins. In those moments, it’s common for some narcissist to arise and become the object of a charismatic leadership relationship.

Under those circumstances, the leader’s claims about policies are irrelevant—all that matters are his (almost always) performances of decisive leadership. It doesn’t matter whether his decisions turn out to be right—what matters is that they were decisive. In these circumstances, rejecting expert advice, refusing to take time to come to a decision, refusing to listen to anyone who disagrees, turning away from disconfirming evidence—all those things contribute to the sense that the leader is decisive, and therefore good.

Of course, as far as actual evidence about that kind of leadership, it’s a disaster. ( Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mussolini—all got their power from charismatic leadership. Not all people who draw power from the charismatic leadership are disasters for their countries (or regions) but everyone who only draws power from charismatic leadership is.

Here’s the difference. Every effective leader in the media-dominated world must be charismatic. But having charisma, and drawing power exclusively from charismatic leadership are not points on a continuum—they are orthogonal (despite what writing on leadership says). A charismatic leader is one who’s power comes entirely from his (again, almost always his) presenting himself as supernaturally wise and powerful and therefore above the normal standards of fairness, consistency, or reason. The charismatic leader being inconsistent, being unable to give reasons, violating all promises—all those things increase his power.

So, how do you know if a charismatic leader is following bad policies? You don’t. You can’t. That he appears to be following risky and unwise policies enhances his positions as a charismatic leader, and calls on you to demonstrate your commitment to him by continuing to believe him despite his engaging in policies all the experts say is wrong, that contradict what he said he’d do, and that might seem ill-considered. You must like that he is playing from the gut.

Once someone has entered in the charismatic leadership relationship, there is no way to admit that he is a shitty leader without your admitting that you’re a shitty judge of character. Charismatic leadership is inherently toxic in that it connects the followers sense of self-worth to the possibly arbitrary policy agenda of the person they have decided really represents them.

In really nasty situations—ones in which demagoguery has become the norm for political discourse–, than all the ambitious political figures try to enact charismatic leadership. Anyone who doesn’t is seen as not “Presidential” (aka, media coverage of the 2016 Presidential election). One problem we have to admit is that the dominant media love themselves some charismatic leadership—it’s great for ratings.

Communities in which charismatic leadership is the dominant relationship between voters and a leader don’t generally end well. They usually end up in an unnecessary war (the Sicilian Expedition, Napoleonic wars, or WWII) if there is a single leader who is mastering all the available energy. If it’s a situation with a lot of rhetors drawing power from the charismatic leadership relationship you might have tremendous cultural commitment to an obviously unwise policy (the US commitment to slavery and, later, segregation, or current homophobic policies).

Trump is in the former category. He is not a person to give up power, and he doesn’t play well with others (and that’s what his base likes about him). He has already shown that he will enact policies that harm his base, and they have shown they don’t care. This isn’t about some kind of rational commitment on their part to his policy agenda. You can tell that because, if you ask them, they say, BUT THE DEMS DID SOMETHING. This isn’t about policies—this is about being on the winning side.

That’s an interestingly irrational argument. Let’s say that the question is whether Trump fired Comey because Comey was pursuing Trump’s reliance on Russia’s having interfered with the election. True believers will say, THIS DEM FIRED SOMEONE. That’s completely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if Clinton or Obama engaged in human sacrifice at every full moon and therefore fired someone. For Trump true believers, the question (every question) is an opportunity to prove that Trump is better than others, and so any bad (even if irrelevant) action on the part of THEM is proof that he is good.

And so they don’t see that doesn’t answer the question at all. Clinton might have kicked puppies and fired someone, and that’s actually irrelevant to whether Trump fired Comey because Comey was going to expose Trump’s reliance on Russia having interfered with the election. Both could be true.

In a charismatic leadership relationship, the followers don’t care if their leader did something bad; they only care whether (in some weird calculus in their minds) their leader can be positioned as better than the other.

And that’s how charismatic leaders screw over their followers. And they always do. Trump has done it faster than most, and his followers have shown themselves to be the most charismatic followers ever since they haven’t balked. He said he would release his returns, and didn’t. He said he would jail Hillary, and he didn’t. He said Obama’s birth certificate was an issue, and then he said it wasn’t. He said he would rid the government of lobbyists, and he filled his administration with them. He said he would end corruption, and he and his family are explicitly using his position to profit them more. He said he didn’t fire Comey because of Russia, and he said he did.

And his base stands by him.

They were thrown under the bus long ago, and there is no circumstance under which they will admit that. And you know that because, those of you with them in your FB feed know that they don’t even try to defend him. They say, BUT THE DEMS….

And they can’t defend what he’s done in terms of what he said he’d do, or what they said he’d do. They can’t only say his team is better than that team.

So, how do we get out of it?

Unhappily, one way is war. The charismatic leader (again, not the leader who is charismatic, but the leader whose power comes entirely from the charismatic relationship) leads people into a stupid war (and, given enough power, they always do) and it’s a disaster (because leaders who depend entirely on charismatic leadership are disastrous in war). The war is a disaster, and many people (not all) decide that was bad. Unfortunately, they generally either say the leader wasn’t wrong, or they pretend they never supported the guy in the first place.

Another is that the leader is representing a minority group, and gets shut down by the legal or traditional authorities (the other two sources of power that Weber identified). That’s what happened with the various rhetors who tried to play charistmatic leadership on behalf of white supremacy in the US South. The Supreme Court shut them down.

We have a Supreme Court that has a majority that is fine with authoritarianism, so that will not play well for democracy.

One of the premises of charismatic leadership is that normal rules of fairness don’t apply. The narrative is that the ingroup has been SO victimized by all these fairness rules, or innovation has been SO hampered by all these rules about how to treat labor, not being able to destroy the environment, you can’t scam investors, and “political correctness” that means you can’t just buy your way into the policies you want! The whole notion that balancing innovation and fairness might involve complicated compromises can be rejected in favor of all the decisions being thrown into the lap of the charismatic leader whose judgment will instantly solve the dilemma. In other words, decisions are complicated—a good leader sees the instantly obvious answer. (Notice that Trump has backtracked even on this, without any fallout from his base.)

Short of a disastrous war that shows the leader wrong (and even that doesn’t always workd), the best way to undercut charismatic leadership is for ingroup rhetors to condemn the leader on procedural or policy grounds. That is, while outgroup rhetors should condemn the leader, it won’t work for too long because one of the first acts of the charismatic leader is to shut down or marginalize that criticism—ingroup members never hear it.

Trump has Fox and the GOP Noise Machine on his side. And the major argument that those sources make is that their listeners shouldn’t listen to any potentially disconfirming information. And you know how well it works. You all have friends or family members who repeat talking points from biased sources but who won’t look at anything that might disagree with them on the grounds that those sources must be biased.

They don’t care about biased sources—that’s all they listen to, read, or watch. The like biased sources.

They only object to sources that might complicate their biases. That’s important to note, as people can start to flip when they realize that they’re being suckered. And Fox suckers them. If Fox really were telling them the truth, then there’d be no harm in looking at other information. The more that Fox tries to tell people not to look at other sources, the more it’s acknowledging its version of the “truth” can’t withstand actual analysis of evidence.

Fox isn’t conservative. It has no coherent political philosophy other than being GOP (which, like the Dems, has flopped all over the place on policy). There are conservatives, and they’re beginning to fall away from Trump, and that gives me hope.

Oddly enough, what also gives me hope is that Trump is overplaying his hand. What sometimes undoes a charismatic leader is that his own belief in himself means that he doesn’t really believe he can permanently alienate any group, and so he just does whatever he wants thinking he can charm or bluff people back into his entourage regardless of his having screwed them over.

So, there are two hopeful signs in the last week. First, Trump has a problem is that many of the people on whom he relies hate him, and feel used by him. (
And that number seems to be increasing. Trump, for all his ability to generate extraordinary public loyalty, doesn’t seem to have much ability to generate personal loyalty, and he never has.

That makes the actively bizarre relationship of him and his First Lady interesting. There has never been a First Lady who has signalled so much animosity toward her husband, and he has only one daughter who can manage to show public affection to him. It doesn’t matter because it shows he’s a bad person or blah blah blah. It matters because it shows that Trump, who will thrown anyone under the bus, has managed to gather around him people with his same ethics. That’s a good thing for democracy. When the time comes that it looks as though spilling the beans on him is a good choice, there will be many people willing to do it.

The second hopeful sign is that outlets like The Economist, Forbes, and Wall Street Journal are publishing scathing articles about his incompetence. Neoliberal free-market fetishists will put up with anything other than random incompetence. (They’ll even tolerate strategic incompetence, such as the Bush Administration.)

But here is one more unhappy point. What does in people like Trump is overreach. And so, at best, we have months of his continuing to behave badly, the GOP Propaganda Machine spinning it as fine, and the most of the GOP political figures selling their soul to Trump penny by penny. And they will try to consolidate their power (as every authoritarian government does) through voter suppression.

So, this is all about 2018, and every reasonable person voting against any figure who has supported Trump.

Blue lies matter

There is an odd moment in the description of the dinner that fired-FBI Director James Comey and Donald Trump had at the White House in January: “As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies.” (

Or, in other words, Trump wanted Comey to talk about how wonderful and popular Trump is. And I want to know which rallies.

That last point matters because some of the rallies weren’t all that well-attended, including the most famous: the inauguration. Did they talk about the crowd at the inauguration? Trump has had a lot of trouble letting go of his lie about the crowd size, and he was, by all accounts, testing the loyalty of Comey that evening. Comey apparently thinks he failed the loyalty test because he wouldn’t explicitly pledge his loyalty to Trump, but I think the explicit request for a loyalty pledge came about because Comey had already failed the first loyalty test. And it’s a test most GOP political figures and all of his supporters are passing with ease, and that should worry us: it’s whether they will take Trump’s lies, and make them what are called “blue lies.”

“Blue lies” is the term some social psychologists use for what they call “pro-social lies”—that is, lies that help maintain a flattering narrative or sense of identity about the ingroup. They’re the group equivalent of “white” lies (“Of course you don’t look fat in that dress!”) And, like a lot of “white” lies, they can be inconsequential—we might decide to tell a person she gave a great speech even if she didn’t simply because the speech is over and there’s nothing she can do about it anyway. Or we might tell a friend that the ex who dumped him was a total jerk anyway, and a complete fool, and our friend is completely in the right. A “blue” lie is a kid on a team saying that they lost just because the ref was out to get them, or that they actually played really well, or it’s members of a choir telling one another they did a great job even though no one got within a yard of the same key.

The inauguration had the best attendance of any inauguration; Trump didn’t (and did) fire Comey over the Russian investigation; Comey promised Trump three times he wasn’t under investigation; there were huge numbers of votes illegally cast by non-citizens; Trump hasn’t had (and has had) financial dealings with Russia—all of those are being handled as blue lies by politicians and media figures who propagate GOP talking points. And that’s troubling, because it means that lies that function almost exclusively to satisfy Trump’s ego are being given the powerful social force typically given to blue lies.

Social psychologists call these lies “pro-social” because, supposedly, they benefit the social group. But, as is clear from the white and blue lies mentioned above, that isn’t necessarily their consequence. We don’t necessarily tell a white lie because we don’t want to hurt someone—sometimes the lie will hurt them a lot in the long run, and we know it—but because we don’t want to hurt their ego right now, largely because we don’t want the conflict or drama that might ensue.

For instance, if a dress really is unflattering, and the person has a chance to change it, then the kind thing to do is to tell them—ideally, in an affirming way. If the person is going to give the speech again, or might need to give other speeches, then it might be helpful for someone to pass along some constructive criticism. If our friend keeps getting dumped because he’s doing something toxic or destructive in a relationship, such as always feeling like a victim, then lying about the situation and encouraging him to feel even more victimized is not helping. That isn’t to say that people have to tell the truth right here and now, or that everyone has to. The most helpful strategy might be to be comforting in the moment, and later having a more honest conversation. But it is saying that white lies prevent deliberation about an incident. It might be fine to prevent deliberation at that moment because it will happen elsewhere, or it might be that deliberation isn’t really necessary (the dress is a bridesmaid dress your friend must wear, and there’s no way to make it more flattering).

A parent might lie to a child about how well a game went, knowing that the coach will be more honest, and team members might similarly lie to one another without any particular harm for similar reasons. But, if there is no one to tell the truth, and if the lying will ensure that the friend will continue to get dumped, the team will continue to lose, the person will continue to make bad speeches that are bad in the same way, then the lies are harmful. If all or most of our information about something is blue or white lies, then we can’t deliberate effectively enough to make different choices in the future.

One of the characteristics I noticed in train wrecks in public deliberation was the prevalence of blue lies. It seems to me that these lies functioned in three ways (sometimes all three at once).

First, and most obviously, the lies that people told and shared helped them feel better about their group, often by reconciling some kind of cognitive dissonance, rationalizing a poor choice in the past, or excusing a decision to which they were already committed (e.g,. the Civil War was not about slavery, Germany lost WWI because of a Jewish stab in the back when it was just about to win). And, after a while, people forget that these are group-affirming polite fictions, and only pay attention to their power to affirm the group.

Second, these lies came to constitute group identity, so that being willing to commit to them in public came to serve as a signal of group identity and loyalty. You show that you are a true Chesterian by insisting that bunnies are never fluffy. If you reject that belief, then your identity as a Chesterian is suspect—these lies are constitutive of group identity.

In the antebellum slave states, you weren’t a “Southerner” unless you supported slavery (which explains the bizarre usage still sometimes in action, when people use “Southerner” and “supporter of slavery” synonymously, as though the millions of people living in the south who objected to slavery didn’t exist). For the purpose of showing ingroup membership and loyalty, it’s actively helpful for the statements to be obviously untrue or easily falsifiable. For instance, in the antebellum era, one blue lie was that slaveholders didn’t rape slaves—that was not just false, but obviously so, and yet it was a falsehood supported through threats of violence; you simply did not mention it. Now, it’s a point of loyalty in some circles to insist on the blue lie that the Civil War was not about slavery. That’s an easily falsified claim (simply looking at pro-secession rhetoric or statements causes shows that the CSA repeatedly identified their main motive as preserving slavery) and I have often found that people who make the statement refuse to look at the pro-secession rhetoric. Their insistence on the “true” causes isn’t something they’re willing to reconsider, and they know they’d have to if they looked at the evidence. They are more concerned with demonstrating loyalty to their group than thinking about whether the group might have screwed up.

And that brings up the third function of these lies. As time goes on, people often forget that the blue lies were lies (although, as mentioned above about the pro-secession rhetoric, their aversion to looking at possibly disconfirming evidence suggests to me that they know it deep in their heart of hearts). The ability of the ingroup to get its lies to become the truth for a larger group becomes an important demonstration of power. It is pleasurable simply because it is simultaneously a demonstration of power and an effective threat. “The Civil War was not about slavery” was one of those lies that, told initially by people who had, until after they lost, insisted it was about slavery; their ability to get that lie into the official histories of the event showed their power. Kenneth Greenberg (Honor and Slavery) tells an amazing story of a slaveholder who knowingly falsely accused a slave of having stolen something. He whipped the slave till the slave confessed. Then whipped the slave back into denial, and back into confession. It never anything to do with the theft—it had to do with the slaveholder’s demonstration that he controlled what could and couldn’t be said. Like the villain O’Brien’s forcing Winston Smith into saying that two plus two is five, this ability to force others into acquiescing on a blue lie is a consequence and demonstration of power.

(For some people, and this is an important point: it is the pleasure in having power.)

For the first function—making a group feel better about their past poor decisions or mistakes—the content of the lie matters, but it doesn’t for the other two. The lies don’t have to be useful lies, or, more accurately, may be most useful when the content of them is pretty nearly arbitrary. In fact, they function better as demonstrations of loyalty and power when the lies flip back and forth.

Of course, under those circumstances, they don’t function at all as useful bases for policy decisions. For instance, one of the blue lies during the buildup to the Iraq invasion was that the invasion was supported by the majority of the world’s powers and another was that only the US and UK had the balls to take on the invasion. Both of those were blue lines insofar as they were pro-Bush Administration and the GOP, and they were put forward by the same people, and they prevented even an intra-GOP debate over the need and solvency of the invasion plan. If everyone agreed we were justified, then we didn’t need to worry about whether the invasion would further alienate various Middle Eastern countries (or countries in general). We didn’t need to have a foreign policy oriented toward regaining goodwill. If, however, we were relatively isolated in our sense that the war was justified and necessary, then regaining goodwill was crucial to be able to benefit from even a successful deposing of Saddam Hussein. Those two different lies implied two different policy directions. Since the pro-invasion rhetors wouldn’t consistently hold to one or the other, there was no possibility of developing a plan that would respond to either contingency.

Similarly, it was common for proslavery rhetors to insist (sometimes in the same document) that slavery was eternal, and slavery would die out on its own. Both of those were dicta in the proslavery statement of creed, and each of those implied different policies for slave states as far as the long term. And neither could be debated, and therefore there couldn’t be a plan that would manage either contingency.

Thus, blue lies prohibit deliberation, and that’s probably why they’re associated with train wrecks. Blue lies rationalize precisely the decisions that got communities into bad situations in the first place (slaves love slavery! segregation is required by Christianity! everyone looks on the US as a liberator!).  In the case of the contradictory blue lies (slaves love slavery, slaves are always about to engage in race war) they prevent a community from looking carefully at those contradictory premises, and so they enable the community to recommit to a bad policy (e.g., the war on drugs).  The blue lie that we could have won in Vietnam if the liberal press hadn’t weakened our will was particularly promoted in the same group that agitated for invading Iraq—because they believed the US could have succeeded, the most important disconfirming example for their policy was simply renarrated.

So, blue lines increase ingroup loyalty, and they enable ingroup ideological policing, and they tank deliberation. That’s bad enough. But what’s happening with Trump’s lies is even worse than that. It’s the way that Trump’s lies are becoming blue lies for the GOP and its propagandists.

The blue lies mentioned above made a large group feel better, as in the lie that we were about to win Vietnam, which is often a sincere gesture to avoid dishonoring those who died or were severely wounded in the conflict; it functions to remove a stain from America and America’s military. The blue lies about slaves loving slavery functioned to make the entire class of supporters of slavery feel better about themselves and to demonstrate their informational power. That Germany could have won were it not for the Jewish press was comforting for the large number of Germans who felt shamed by its loss in WWI.

Trump’s lies don’t help a group. They are entirely about his ego, his achievements, and his ability to whip people to confession and denial and back. They are tests of his power over others, and their willingness to submit to whatever he wants to say at the moment. Loyalty to him is loyalty to the lies he tells himself. They don’t benefit others, except to the extent that those others see themselves as entirely dependent and submissive to him and his truth.

Trump’s lies demonstrate his ability to get anyone, even the GOP and media outlets that previously condemned him, to change their version of events at his whim. And it’s working. Republicans continue to support him, despite his having broken so many promises that he has resorted to scrubbing away evidence he ever made them.

I don’t know whether he’s conscious of that, and I don’t care. What matters is that that lies that have become blue lies for the GOP and major media are lies that function primarily (perhaps only) to make him feel better about himself, to get others to demonstrate loyalty to him, and to demonstrate his own power.

What matters is that, for whatever reason, the GOP and its propagandists have stopped flirting with authoritarianism. This is authoritarianism.


Violence and rhetoric

I have a PhD in Rhetoric. I have several times ended up running a composition program, which meant managing 20-60 people, and I now direct a thriving writing center, and that means managing a staff of about 100. I have never had a management class. I have never had training in what to do when your staff is worried they might be killed on the way to work.

And this is now my concern.


There were a lot of requirements for my getting a PhD in Rhetoric. I had to take six courses in the history of rhetoric, another six or so classes in various things (including an entire course on Victorian novels), pass a 90 minute oral exam that involved being able to describe in detail such thrilling authors as Geoffrey of Vinsauf or Pierre de la Ramee (Petrus Ramus to the Latinophiles among you), achieve translation fluency in two languages (at least one a “hard” language), and write a dissertation (about 50k words on a topic).

And, from that training, I went on to management positions. Along the way, I have tried to pick up skills involving performance management, giving useful criticism, onboarding, developing a performance improvement plan. But, let’s be blunt, achieving a translation fluency of German has not been something on which I’ve often drawn when trying to figure out how to fire someone, and so my training was less than ideal. Since most of my current staff is undergraduates, and I only manage them indirectly (I spend most of my time running around the university trying to persuade supportive but fiscally-strapped administrators to give us money), my current management style is mostly to help the people involved in direct administration to be as effective as they can. And I try to get more money. I’m not claiming to be an ideal manager, but I am saying I am giving it my best effort.

Several years ago, an undergraduate committed suicide in the main library on my campus. Since he used a gun, and since there was much confusion, that incident involved a lot of my day locked down in my office in a building that was rumored to have an active shooter (it didn’t). I was behind a 1950s desk that was up against a metal filing cabinet filled with papers and a metal double-walled mail chute. I spent the time cleaning out my files and updating Facebook because friends were worried. I was willing to grant that there might be an active shooter, but, other than working to get some undergrads in the hallway into a safe space, I was satisfied with my safety and so wasn’t especially worried.

Today there was a stabbing attack that was fairly random, several hundred feet from where I was, but it was in a space through my employees walk. And so I may not sleep.

I have never been trained for management, but I like to think I have done a lot to rectify that because I can see the value in giving useful feedback, knowing how to write an ask, making sure timesheets are correct. This year I have had to find out what to do if ICE comes to my workplace and tries to drag off a student or employee, and now I have to get more training on what to do with a staff that can reasonably be worried about their safety while walking through the center of a college campus.

This isn’t about whether guns should or shouldn’t be allowed on campus. This should not be another opportunity for people with serious mental health issues to rationalize their not getting help by yodelling false flag. This certainly shouldn’t be another salvo in the war as to whether they are better than us. It isn’t about whether the assailant is a person of color, or mentally ill, or a member of them.

When this kind of act happens, the impulse is to identify the group membership of the assailant, all in service of insisting that this incident proves that they are the cause of all evil. He’s a dem, or Muslim, or white, or not white, or conservative, or Christian. His having done this things proves that dems, Muslims, whites, non whites, conservatives, or Christians, or whatever are evil.

That kind of rhetoric, demagoguery really, doesn’t help. It’s the problem. He is a consequence of that kind of rhetoric. I don’t know anything about the assailant, but I’ll guess mentally ill. And I’ll guess that he has been hanging out in an informational enclave that is full of rhetoric about how evil THEY are, and how WE are in danger of extermination. Perhaps the people promoting that rhetoric meant it metaphorically, perhaps they didn’t think much about what exactly they meant, and they just wanted to get more clicks, viewers, or ad revenues. Perhaps they meant it.

But, perhaps he only consumed mainstream media. Is that really so different? How far does one have to go in mainstream media to find hyperbolic claims about a war on the ingroup? Whether or not he was hearing voices in his head, he could have heard voices in the media telling him that some group was trying to exterminate his kind. He certainly wouldn’t have to go far to find rhetoric saying that we are in a war against them, and the only solution is to exterminate them. And so, perhaps, he did.

That might not be what happened in this case, but it might be. It certainly is what did happen when Jim Adkisson shot up a Unitarian Church, or when Dylann Roof shot up a black church. We have an awful lot of media (including mainstream media like Fox) that are all “they’re trying to kill us” all the time. And that has to have a consequence.

Yet, instead of the media deeply invested (and profiting from) their rhetoric of “THERE IS A WAR AGAINST US” having to rethink their implicit promotion of violence, I have to think about what to do tomorrow to make my staff concentrate on their jobs when we all now know that they might have been killed today.