Trump’s Followers

Everyone familiar with the leadership literature knows that, overwhelmingly, it’s about leaders not followers. Even now, when to people like me it’s screamingly obvious that followers matter as much as leaders, leadership experts continue to focus laser-like on those at the top. Those in the middle and at the bottom are still largely ignored.

The few among us who do study followers tend to divide them into groups. Why? Because followers are like leaders. They are different one from the other, so thinking of them as one, as a single clump, makes scant sense. The capacity to distinguish among followers is of considerable urgency now, during the presidency of Donald Trump, when on the one hand large numbers of Americans see him as a dangerous would-be dictator, while on the other hand large numbers of Americans see him as a splendid specimen of a politician, well suited to be chief executive.

Let’s be clear here: even in the immediate wake of Michael Cohen’s explosive testimony against him, President Trump’s approval ratings did not drop. They stayed essentially the same: 45% of Americans still approve of the way he is doing his job. While this seems baffling and even frightening to many other Americans, all of us should be clear eyed. Trump’s followers remain remarkably, even stunningly, loyal – however badly he behaves in the present and however badly he behaved in the past. So far at least, none of it makes much of a difference.

Who exactly are Trump’s followers? Who exactly follows a leader who, whatever his assets and deficits, manifestly lies and cheats and steals? Who exactly are those among us who approve of a chief executive whose character is so deeply flawed, and whose commitment to the rule of law is so manifestly tenuous?

For the purpose of this discussion I divide Trump’s followers into just two groups. The first consists of those who have concluded that it’s in their interest to remain in a relationship with Trump best described as transactional. Transactional relationships involve an exchange of some sort, in which leaders and followers trade favors, implicit or explicit, on the assumption that both sides stand to benefit. During the time of Trump, the clearest examples of this are those of his followers who believe most strongly in the Republican agenda, for example, in nominating strict conservatives to the supreme court. In this group are also congressional Republicans. No doubt some are true believers – they think Trump is terrific. But, no doubt others are not true believers. They do not think Trump is terrific. Still, they feel it’s in their political interest to pretend – to pretend they strongly support the president because doing so will enhance their chance of being reelected.  

Again, for the purpose of this essay I’ll set this first group of followers aside and turn to the second. To those followers who really are true believers – who are nuts about Trump, who greatly admire him, and who remain in the thrall of this leader in particular. I refer, for example, to those who attended last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in part to hear the president speak.

Eugene Robinson, columnist for the Washington Post, described the president’s inordinately long (over two hours) CPAC speech as “rambling and incoherent.” The president, Robinson wrote “raved like a lunatic and told crazy, self-serving lies from start to finish.” Robinson, a reasonable centrist, was, obviously, appalled by what he witnessed – less perhaps by Trump than by Trump’s reception. As CNN later described it, the president “did not disappoint.” The crowd hung on his every word, cheered his every trope, and throughout was “wildly enthusiastic.” At CPAC in any case, Trump’s minions could not get enough of the man they came to adore – their leader.

What’s going on here? Why are so many ordinary Americans – who presumably teach their children to be good people – so taken with a man who violates the most fundamental of American norms? Norms such as integrity, decency, empathy. Reasons have been given aplenty. We know by now some of the demographics that pertain – I need not repeat them here. Moreover we know by now that Trump is a bad ass – he is our national id; he is our collective bad boy; he dares to misbehave in ways the rest of us would never dare to. Ironically, these are his attractions. His miserable manners. His flouting of the rule of law. His deliberate disassociations from principles with which America has been associated since the beginning of the Republic.

So that which strongly repels some of us, strongly attracts others of us. Attracts some of us Americans with a pull so magnetic, so hypnotic, that they and Trump have forged that rare thing – a genuinely charismatic relationship.

The word “charisma” has long been bandied about rather freely. Celebrities are easily described as having charisma.  Leaders are easily described as having charisma. And people to whom we are especially attracted are easily described as having charisma. But, in its earliest incarnation, the word “charisma” had a special meaning. Originally it was an ancient Greek word meaning “gift” – a gift from the Gods. “Powers that could not be explained by ordinary means were called charismata.” Later the term was picked up by the Christian church to describe talents such as prophecy, wisdom, and healing that were “believed to have been bestowed by God.” And, still later, it was picked up by and ultimately popularized by the renowned German sociologist Max Weber, who conceived of charisma as one among three sources of authority. Weber also thought charisma rare, a singular quality that set a few men (yes, men) apart from everyone else, enabling them to be seen as “endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least… exceptional powers and qualities.”*

Charisma then, real charisma, is exceptional, unusual, infrequent. It is extra-ordinary. More to my point, though, is charismatic leadership. It too is exceptional, unusual, infrequent. It too is extra-ordinary. Charismatic leadership is not so much about the leader, or for that matter about the followers. Rather it is about the relationship between them. It is the relationship that is key – the relationship is all. According to political scientist Ann Ruth Willner, charismatic leadership is a relationship between a leader and a group of followers that has the following properties:

  1. The leader is perceived by the followers as somehow extraordinary, special, sometimes even superhuman.
  2. The followers blindly believe the leader’s statements or seem to – no matter how outrageous or obviously false.    
  3. The followers unconditionally comply with the leader’s directives for action.
  4. The followers give the leader unqualified emotional commitment.**

Clearly the one does not exist without the other: leaders do not exist without their followers. More specifically, charismatic leaders cannot exist without their followers. Similarly, followers of charismatic leaders are deeply dependent on them – such followers rely on their leaders not only to provide direction, but to make meaning. Charismatic leadership is characterized above all by the symbiotic relationship – the intensely dependent and interdependent relationship between leaders and their followers.

Trump and his diehard followers fall into this category. They are an example of charismatic leadership and, if you will, charismatic followership. This explains why Trump loves nothing so much as to appear before large crowds of his fierce, fervent, and fevered devotees. And, this explains why those of us who are other than his fierce, fervent, and fevered devotees will continue to be deeply disappointed. For no new information, no Truth with a capital T, will ever change the minds of those who rank among the president’s most ardent disciples. The thing to bear in mind between now and the next presidential election is that relationships between charismatic leaders and their followers never break of their own accord. They crack only when the context within which they are situated compels them to do so.

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*The quotes in this paragraph are from Jay Conger, The Charismatic Leader (Jossey-Bass, 1989).  

**These points are based on Willner’s book, The Spellbinders (Yale University Press, 1984).

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