Eulogy for Bernie


Image by DonkeyHotey

by Keith Doubt

Often it is Donald Trump’s deep personality flaws that are the focus for some political pundits. Some tend to focus on his rhetoric and its intense demagoguery with its dark consequences, and others address Trump’s fascist attitudes. Few directly take up a more awkward question: what is it that fuels Trump’s political legitimacy which makes him a competitive candidate for the US presidency? It is Trump’s political legitimacy, however unthinkable, rather than his personality or his rhetoric, that now empowers his campaign. But this is nothing new. Twenty years ago, we watched nationalist leaders display all of these issues vividly on global media during the Bosnian War.

Robert Reich makes a keen observation: Trump’s supporters support him precisely for the qualities he is being criticized for: bigotry, megalomania, narcissism, xenophobia, and so on. If what Reich says is true, it means that the more rational pundits’ criticism of Trump is, the more the criticism empowers him. The more moral the critique of Trump is, the more it emboldens him.  Pundits are thus caught in a double-bind.  If deeply rational and profoundly moral critiques do not counter Trump’s candidacy, what does?

One option is to fight fire with fire, demagoguery with demagoguery, and this option tempts Hillary Clinton more than Bernie Sanders. Such a battle between Trump and Clinton and its unpredictable, cliff-hanging outcome will delight the U.S. media. When Trump’s Republican opponents fought Trumps’ demagoguery with their own demagoguery, it, however, backfired. Trump quickly trashed his rival Mario Rubio after Rubio attempted to attack Trump in the same vein, with Trump’s weapons of insults and character assassinations. Opponents had to capitulate begrudgingly to Trump’s charismatic superiority. If Clinton follows the wrong-headed practice of Trumps’ Republican opponents, the United States could suffer most tragically.

The question is what logic sustains the perverse paradox within which Trump entraps and demeans political discourse? How do we understand the political legitimacy that stymies Trump’s critics and oppose it effectively? It is important to understand what structures Reich’s paradoxical observation.

Max Weber describes three types of legitimate political domination. Each is an ideal type. No one political figure perfectly exemplifies an ideal type. One type of political legitimacy is patriarchal or traditional. Another is bureaucratic or legal rational.  Another is charismatic. Weber’s analysis of charismatic domination helps account for the double-bind Trump puts political discourse and presidential politics. To his supporters, Trump looks like a natural leader in a time of spiritual, economic, and ethical decay. He is not appointed, nor trained. He is neither a specialist nor a professional. He appears, simply appears, to possess a certain gift, a knack, that his supporters regard as supernatural, which is special because it is not available, as his fallen opponents demonstrate, to everyone. Trump recognizes as Weber says “no forms or orderly procedures for appointment or dismissal, no career, no advancement, no salary. There is no organized training either for the bearer of charisma or his aides.”  Charismatic domination is, first and foremost, as Weber goes on to say, an anti-economic force, which deeply frightens Wall Street.

Where, then, is Trump’s Achilles heel? The charismatic leader acquires political legitimacy and thus the right to dominate only by proving his powers in real life. To maintain the loyalty of his following, the charismatic leader must constantly prove himself against formidable odds, and the charismatic leader can do so in whatever way imaginable, the more outrageous, the more irrational, and the more amoral the better. Here is the sole reason for the charismatic leader’s legitimacy. However, once the charismatic leader falters and shows himself to be bereft of his power, his supporters will abandon him and look for another.

During the campaign we saw Trump stumble. After first wanting to debate Sanders in California, Trump got cold feet and bowed out. Trump realized that if Sanders debated him, Trump could quickly be exposed as weak and feeble. Trump would have lost his sense of invincibility in the eyes of his followers. Sander’s political legitimacy through his campaign was strongly based on those Republican and Biblical traditions and their value orientations that ground the best of American politics (Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Dr. Martin Luther King). Sanders embraced this traditional political legitimacy more authentically and more wholeheartedly than Clinton, which is why Sanders was so popular and refreshing among young voters and why it would have been wiser for the Democratic Party to select Sanders rather than Clinton for their nominee. Sander’s traditional political legitimacy would have easily disempowered Trump’s charismatic political legitimacy. The polls showed Sander’s superior advantage over Trump in comparison to Clinton. Trump knew this. Agreeing and then disagreeing to debate Sanders, waffling in this way, showed a weak point in Trump’s armor, his Achilles heel. Trump wisely decided to wait and debate Clinton, an easier opponent because it would be easier for Trump to victimize Clinton successfully and thus impress his followers.

The choice for the Democratic Party was not so much between two people, between Sanders and Clinton, but between the two types of political legitimacy, which Sanders and Clinton represent respectively, namely, traditional political legitimacy and bureaucratic political legitimacy. Clinton’s claim to rule is grounded primarily in her experience in government, her strong sense of bureaucratic authority. The people in the United States will not find a better bureaucratic president. Clinton knows the system of practical rationality that structures the US government. The rules of the system are grounded not so much in something sacred or a traditional heritage but rather in their utilitarian calculability. People with bureaucratic authority are able to replace one set of rules with another set of rules whenever it is rational to do so and whenever it better serves the leader or country’s self-interest. The political legitimacy of the superdelegates at the Democratic Party convention and power elite managing the Democratic National Committee had little to do with time-honored democratic values and practices; the political legitimacy of the superdelegates represented a system of political bureaucracy and its domination within the Democratic Party. Consider as well in this context Clinton’s antipathy as a bureaucratic leader toward whistleblowers who step outside of the government’s iron cage of rationality.

The important issue here is whether bureaucratic political legitimacy is the best way to counter Trump’s charismatic legitimacy. Charismatic authority intuitively knows how to mock and humiliate bureaucratic authority. Charismatic authority sees through the formalistic, self-serving rules of the bureaucrat grounded more in practicality rather than in principle. This political contest between charismatic political legitimacy and bureaucratic political legitimacy was dramatized during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina when nationalist leaders played irrational games and demeaned the mandates and edicts of the bureaucratic United Nations in its effort to stop the genocide there. The United Nations lost; bureaucratic authority fell to charismatic authority.  Bernie’s traditional legitimacy would have easily defeated Trump’s charismatic legitimacy in ways that Clinton’s bureaucratic legitimacy may not be able to as easily.  For some reason, Sanders himself did not seem to fully understand this point. The extremely important issue now is to focus on Trump’s Achilles heel, which is actually easy to find, thanks to Weber’s sharp understanding of what truly fuels charismatic authority as a form of political domination and predicts its defeat.

About the Author:

Keith Doubt is Professor of Sociology at Wittenburg University. He is the author of Towards a Sociology of Schizophrenia: Humanistic Reflections (University of Toronto Press), Sociology after Bosnia and Kosovo: Recovering Justice (Rowman & Littlefield), Sociologija nakon Bosne(Buybook, Sarajevo) and Understanding Evil: Lessons from Bosnia (Fordham University Press). With Omer Hadziselimovic he is the co-editor of the interdisciplinary, bilingual journal, Duh Bosne / Spirit of Bosnia. His most recent book, Through the Window: Kinship and Elopement in Bosnia-Herzegovina was published in 2014 by Central European University Press.