Trump and the Eclipse of Weberian Politics

The 14th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in March, 2016.


NO GREATER FUN CAN BE HAD in the present political situation than to watch the sputtering attempts of media analysts to describe the phenomenon of Trumpism or, alternately, to conceal however poorly their contempt for it. “Georgia has fallen to Trump” was Bret Baier’s bon mot (or rather lapsus de langue), presumably referring to the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 and confusing Trump with his pre-Trumpist forerunner.

The consensus among Fox News analysts the evening of Super Tuesday was that Trump’s success in racking up primary victories from (they insinuate) the nation’s unsuspecting rubes derives simply from Trump’s “outsider” status and his projection of strength. Against such a “con man” Marco Rubio can think only to point out the changes in Trump’s positions, his cynicism born of capitalist strategy and his untrustworthiness as a standard bearer of Principled Conservatism™. Presumably Rubio’s well-heeled strategists think the “con man” attack will wake up the fools who could not uncover Trump’s esoteric core. And perhaps it will work for the small percentage of city-dwelling Americans who think that a #NeverTrump hashtag is sufficient to move mountains.
But as the same commentators are quick to admit at least once per column or once per show, Trump “violates the laws of presidential politics”—the laws of the social scientists and TV commentators who could not have identified the advance of Trumpism if Pat Buchanan had punched them in the face.
Charismatic authority, said the twentieth century’s social scientist par excellence, “rest[s] on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” Eight years ago, such qualities were identified—favorably—by the New York Times in the person of Barack Obama: “there seems so little other way to explain how a first-term senator has managed to dazzle his way to front-runner in the race for the presidency, how he walks on water for so many supporters, and how the mere suggestion that he is, say, mortal, risks vehement objection, or at least exposing the skeptic as deeply uncool.”
The New York Times was hardly alone. F. H. Buckley identified Obama as a classic Weberian charismatic, “above politics, above legal constraints,” unable to “brook rivals,” impatient with “inconvenient institutions.” And in remarks worthy only of professors at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Barbara Kellerman mistook Weber’s description as pure praise, and declared that Obama “is and has been for some time a rara avis—a rare bird.”
CONTRARY TO ANALYSTS’ ATTEMPTS to explain Trump on a similar basis, Trump’s political advance undoes even the value-neutral application of Weberian reasoning. Trump has none of the “exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character” that the media mapped on to Barack Obama, strutting before Greek columns at the Democratic convention in 2008. Trump’s authorship ofTrump: The Art of the Deal (1987), Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life (2007) and similar tomes is undisputed and well known. Wheeling and dealing are not charismatic arts; Obama never had to practice them. Whatever cynicism Trump required to get ahead in business was universally suspected of him by the end of the 1980s. No one can publish Trump: How to Get Rich (2004), succeed, and then collapse under the weight of accusations of con-artistry.
Trump’s escape both from charisma and from the “laws of presidential politics” was evident in his decision last night to exchange a victory rally (so panned after his “winning, winning, winning” post-Nevada speech) for a substantive and strategically successful press conference. In place of Obama’s prickly inability to “brook rivals,” Trump offered Paul Ryan the option of dealing or defeat. Far from soaring above American institutions like Barbara Kellerman’s rara avis, he is maligned for being able to make a deal. Those who hope Trump’s off-record immigration dealing with the New York Times will prove his undoing again mistake the needs of charisma with the power of command.
Unlike the paleoconservatives of old, Trump would never write Pat Buchanan’s A Republic, Not an Empire—nor any other lament for an unrecoverable America. To make America great again requires the art of the deal, the art of driving a hard bargain, and not the head-lolling narcissism of Kasichian compromise. At the heart of the deal is not narcissism but the spirit, not personal charisma but victory whose champion could be Trump—or another.

—MANLIUS CAPITOLINUS

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