I decided to interrupt my series on the Byzantine Empire to write a piece about the current political climate in the United States. Not in my lifetime has there been such a state of confusion in American politics, so I’d like to try and ease people’s minds using ancient history as a context.
Since Donald Trump took office, there has been a cataclysmic angst enveloping the country, which shows no signs of abating. This angst, in my opinion, is based on three factors. The first is the relentless attack on Trump by the left, through the media and in demonstrations. This has created pressure on elected democrats to adopt a scorched earth strategy regarding Trump (burn down everything). One would expect disappointment and anger to follow any close election, but it is outsized and more visceral this time, even when you consider the media’s handling of the drama.
The second factor is a rebound response from the left based on their shock that Hillary lost combined with second guessing on why this happened. The left was very comfortable with continuing the trend toward a more socialist/progressive federal government, and their ease with the prospects for it to continue after 2016 were fueled by the media and the wide rejection of Trump as a candidate who could win. Unfortunately, their arrogance led to complacency.
The third factor, which crosses all political stripes, is the break in behavior Trump has made from every president before him. He doesn’t play the establishment role -- no quiet consultation and analysis on issues, no stiff control of information, and no politeness, to be honest. This is jarring to the public, because it’s all new and gives an impression of chaos, or an approach to governance that seems out of control. Republicans are as nervous as democrats.
The great sociologist Max Weber wrote about the basis for legitimacy of political leadership and defined three types: hereditary, charismatic, and rational-legal. Hereditary legitimacy is power based on family. This is the traditional royal family model where the son of the king becomes king. An unfortunate byproduct of this form is uneven quality of governance in and between generations. If the son of a great king is a loser, the political system goes through a period of instability. I often cite the example of the British crown as an example of this phenomenon. At the time of Henry VIII, the British monarch had ultimate power over the realm and Parliament was operating as a powerless opponent. After Henry, and through subsequent generations, Parliament used periods of poor kingship as opportunities to transfer power to itself. The endpoint of that process was a ceremonial monarchy devoid of power.
Charismatic legitimacy is granted by popular opinion. The personality of the leader is such that citizens take pride in being ruled by and expect great things from someone who is an elegant speaker and can control their emotions. But there are at least two problems with this. The first is that the power only lasts as long as the leader. When the leader goes away, there is a vacuum created when the next leader is less charismatic, so this type of legitimacy the least stable of the three.
But there is a second problem also. Charisma is dangerous when the leader is motivated in a direction that runs counter to the interests of those being governed. Think Hitler. Definitely charismatic; but at the same time a bad actor. More recently, we have the example of Obama who, unlike Hitler, never wavered from his effort to make America better. His legitimacy was based on charisma; not experience. Prior to being elected, he had served four years in the Senate and seven years in the Illinois legislature -- a short resume. But he was the perfect charismatic candidate – a black man who was intelligent, articulate, accomplished, and convincing in his argument that he could usher in a new era of unity for the United States. He also enjoyed the lucky circumstance of running against a party that had been in power for eight years with an uneven record. In the end, despite his charisma, it’s fair to say that the Obama presidency accomplished less than the American people had hoped for.
The third type of legitimacy is called rational-legal. This describes a formal structure which, in itself, grants legitimacy. In the United States we have a system of voting that allows all citizens to cast ballots for a slate of candidates. Checks are in place to make sure that citizens are not denied the right to vote and that the votes that are cast are legitimate. The American public’s belief that this system is honest grants legitimacy to those elected. Recall the hanging chad election of 2000. Once the votes were checked and re-checked, and the American people saw there was no corrupt process at work, Bush took office, and was accepted as president by the American people.
Now, with Weber’s theory as a backdrop, I’d like to go back to antiquity and look at a couple of relevant examples. There was no rational-legal option in those days, at least in the way we would see it today. Most ancient political systems were authoritarian and in the case of a few exceptions, participation was not equal. Only men who were landholders could vote or serve as candidates, and there was the always the potential for large scale corruption of the voting process. That means that political legitimacy was limited to heredity or charismatic behaviors.
The first example is Solon, the great republican of Athens, who rose to power around 600 BC, at time when Athens was in great disarray. As Plutarch puts it, “the state was on the verge of revolution, because of the excessive poverty of some citizens, and the enormous wealth of others, and it appeared that the only means of putting an end to these disorders was by establishing an absolute despotism.” Solon was elected Archon in 594 because “most sensible men in Athens perceived that he was a person who shared the vices of neither faction, as he took no part in the oppressive conduct of the wealthy, and yet had sufficient fortune to save him from the straits to which the poor were reduced”. Solon’s charisma and forceful personality led party leaders to urge him to take absolute power and make himself king. But he saw risks in that title and refused.
Athens was the first great democracy in the history of the world, and stands as an enduring example of a government granting rights to their citizens, but Solon was not a democrat. He was a republican who believed that republics were a better form of government than democracies. He rejected democratic equality – choosing instead a way of creating a balance between the classes. He believed the strengthening of the middle class would neutralize the conflict between the upper and lower, a sentiment we often discuss today.
To rule properly, Solon thought it best to “combine force and justice together” and he became “Trump-like”. He started changing Laws. What laws? Nearly all of them. He cancelled all debts and obligations in Athens, repealed the dreaded Draconian criminal code and substituted his own, and then he wrote a new constitution. These efforts were based on his judgment that the establishment was no longer working and needed to be overturned.
After his goals were accomplished, Solon resigned from power and left Athens -- a rare case of a man who held charismatic power but refused to be corrupted by it.
My second example is Julius Caesar. Highborn as a member of the family Julii, Caesar aspired to wealth and power. He knew that the family name and his status as a patrician gained him hereditary legitimacy for a career in government, but that was not enough. He wanted more. Caesar was intelligent with significant political instincts, but he saw obstacles in his intended path. He had enormous debts, which left him poor compared to men like Crassus and he possessed a weak military record which could not be compared to that of Pompey. The solution? Align with his two rivals until he could sharpen up his resume.
Engaging his political skills, Caesar suggested that he, Pompey, and Crassus formed a unique administrative structure called a triumvirate, which would have all three rule the republic as partners. Then, once that structure was put in place, Caesar had himself made governor of Gaul.
For ten years Caesar ruled Gaul through a series of wars that left him with first rate military credentials and great wealth based on tax collections and bribes. Now sensing superiority over his partners (Crassus indifference to power and Pompey’s lack of political skill), Caesar made his move when he crossed the Rubicon. Defeating his rivals, be became supreme dictator of the republic. But whatever charisma Caesar may have had, it was not enough to overcome the anger and displeasure of the ruling class toward his arrogant theft of power. The republic was not ready to give up its trappings, so Caesar was assassinated. Unfortunately, the resulting vacuum of power caused further instability. The Senate had no great leader to help them restore the old Rome, so the republic drifted through fourteen years of contests for power until Octavian was able to win out and build a new political system.
Unlike Solon, Caesar was corrupted by power. He used charisma to his advantage but went too far. The last straw for the Senate was when he put his image on Roman coins, a place previously reserved for the gods.
So now we fast forward to the current day, and return our discussion to Mr. Trump. Elections throughout history have shown us that leaders get elected for a reason, not luck. It’s usually the merging of a personality with the times (works in Trump’s case), based on events that occur during the election campaign, emerging external threats, or the failures of the previous administration. Trump got elected because a) the democrats had been in power for the previous eight years, b) Mrs. Clinton was a flawed candidate who represented the establishment, c) people we fed up with the failures of an establishment-driven government, and d) Trump, as a successful businessman and outsider, was able to communicate to the American people about what he could accomplish.
Trump’s style is populist, a cousin to charisma. One would not call him charismatic in Weber’s sense, although success in business might engender respect, but populists succeed because people like leaders who they think understand their problems and want to fix them. Trump created enough support so that the rational-legal legitimization process could carry him to the white house, even though he channeled more cowboy than statesman.
American elections are always about the political pendulum and which way it’s swinging. Right left right left. The swing is never uniform because its endpoint is partly determined by the uniqueness of the recent past, and we end up being pushed to a new place. Societies move forward in “fits and starts” because human behavior is often irrational, so a government can never be more than the sum of its people’s humanness.
There have been a thousand Trumps in world history even if there have been none in America. In the end, Trump like every other elected leader will endure or fail based on what he is able to accomplish for the American people. If we can become more relaxed about his style and avoid too many literal interpretations of his behavior, things have a chance to get better.