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The Charisma Cult

In 1919, Adolf Hitler, then a little-known corporal in the German army gave a rousing speech in a Munich beer hall. He railed against the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I and brought Germany's economy to its knees. He spoke of restoring Germany's pride and greatness, and he did so with words that dripped with vile antisemitism and brutality. Something about his words, passion, and conviction struck an ominous chord. 

Over the next 14 years, through the sheer force of his personality, history, rabble-rousing hatred and oratory, he would rise to become the absolute dictator of Germany. Millions would hang on his every word as if he were a prophet. Millions more would die because of it. The German people would follow him into war, commit unthinkable atrocities in his name, and fight to the bitter end for their FĂĽhrer, even as the country and their humanity lay in ruins around them.

How could one man command such blind devotion? According to the German sociologist Max Weber, it comes down to charisma. The power of the charismatic leader, Weber argued, rests on his followers' conviction that he possesses extraordinary, almost superhuman abilities and that he has a destiny, a calling, to achieve something great. 

This is the secret of the populist politician. They make their followers believe they are singular, remarkable, and chosen by fate to lead their people to salvation. Those followers, in turn, feel special, part of the leader's inner circle of true believers fighting for a higher cause.

As Weber recognized, charisma is a double-edged sword. The charismatic leader rules by defying and denigrating law and tradition, replacing them with the sheer force of personality. Their power comes from their bond with their followers, not any constitutional constraints. This makes charismatic authority inherently unstable and prone to sudden collapse if (or more likely, when) the leader loses their follower's faith.

History is littered with charismatic politicians who soared to dizzying heights only to fall just as dramatically. Benito Mussolini, the fascist strongman who ruled Italy as Il Duce in the 1920s and 30s, was an early hero and role model for Adolf Hitler. Mussolini liked to pose bare-chested and have his picture taken, flying planes or riding horses, the living embodiment of strength and masculinity and the source of modern-day demagogue Vladimir Putin's own plagiarised public image. 

"Il Duce" inspired adoring crowds with grandiose promises of recreating the Roman Empire. For a time, he was widely popular, and his followers were convinced he was a political genius and Italy's saviour, even as he carried out multiple genocides in North Africa. But when his alliance with Hitler brought Italy to ruin in World War II, Mussolini's charisma quickly drained away. Near the end, as Allied forces closed in, his people strung him up and left his broken body dangling upside-down at a gas station.

Sukarno, Indonesia's charismatic founding father and president from 1945 to 1967, is another example. His flamboyant style, fiery nationalism, and revolutionary anti-Western rhetoric made him immensely popular with his followers, who saw him as the heroic embodiment of the new Indonesian nation. His speeches could stretch for hours, but the rapt crowd would hang on his every word. 

Sukarno's Indonesia was a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, but privately, he tacked further and left, cosying up to the Communist Party of Indonesia. The United States grew increasingly alarmed and began cultivating a rival power base in the military. In 1965, with the economy in shambles and opposition mounting, a mysterious failed coup by a group of left-leaning officers gave the military its pretext to move against Sukarno. 

His support quickly evaporated; the leader who once held Indonesia in thrall now proved powerless as the military gradually stripped him of authority. He lived under house arrest until he died in 1970, a once-beloved leader abandoned by his people.

Few politicians embody the fine line between charisma and disaster more than Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. A former paratrooper, Chávez, burst onto the scene after leading a failed coup attempt in 1992. When the government foolishly let him give a televised speech to call off the insurrection, his charisma and defiance instantly made him a folk hero.

"Unfortunately, for the moment, the objectives that we had set for ourselves have not been achieved in the capital," he said, hinting that he'd be back. 

When he won the 1998 presidential election, he took the oath of office saying, "I swear in front of my people that over this moribund constitution, I will push forward the democratic transformations that are necessary."

Over the next 14 years, until he died in 2013, Chávez would dominate Venezuela, winning election after election. He was a master of grand political theatre, memorably giving George W. Bush the nickname "Mr Danger" and closing speeches with the battle cry "Socialism, homeland, or death! We shall prevail!" Even the saga of his fight against cancer became a national drama.

But for all Chávez's charisma, his "Bolivarian" socialist revolution was built on shaky foundations. Venezuela's vast oil wealth allowed him to finance lavish social programs that bought the loyalty of the poor, but he failed to diversify the economy beyond petroleum. He hollowed out democratic institutions and marginalized rivals. 

After Chávez's death, his less charismatic successor, Nicolás Maduro, inherited a country in crisis. With oil prices tanking, the flow of petrodollars that propped up the revolution dried up. Hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine ravaged the country. Chávez's fervent supporters now turned out in the streets to protest against Maduro.

It's a familiar pattern: the charismatic leader who rises to power on a wave of widespread enthusiasm, only to leave chaos in his wake once the spell is broken. Think of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president, who gave Africa the revolutionary slogan "Seek ye first the political kingdom" but ended up exiled after his misrule wrecked the country's economy. Or Gambia's Yahya Jammeh, the preening military officer fond of carrying a traditional sorcerer's staff and calling himself "his excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr."—until he too was forced into exile after losing the 2016 election.

What's striking is how often the subject of the charismatic politician falls in love with their own legend, coming to believe their own hype. I'd crack a joke about drinking their own Kool-Aid, but in the context of the ever-charismatic mass murderer Jim Jones, it's less a joke than another case study. When followers treat you as extraordinary, it's easy for a professional egotist to start seeing themselves the same way. It's a kind of folie Ă  deux, a shared delusion between leader and followers, enabling wanton recklessness.

Charisma in politics isn't always destructive. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Vaclav Havel were leaders who used their extraordinary personal magnetism to serve a noble cause. Their charisma gave them the power to inspire followers to acts of great moral courage and self-sacrifice. 

But such figures stand out precisely because they are so rare. More often, political charisma is a dangerous pyrotechnic—flashy, awe-inspiring, but ultimately liable to blow up in the face of followers naĂŻve enough to put their trust in fallible demagogues. 

The rise and fall of the charismatic politician is an age-old story. The tragedy is that it repeats in every nation and almost every generation, and the cost of charisma is always paid in blood. 

Make of that what you will. 

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