For those of us who viewed a potential Donald Trump presidency with alarm, the only thing more troubling than his victory Tuesday is the manner in which he won.
If Trump had run a more-or-less conventional campaign, and if it had earned him a lead in the polls for weeks before Election Day, then his triumph would have been a more-or-less normal event, in the eyes of both his supporters and his foes.
As his rambling wreck of a campaign rolled on, only he and a hardy few true believers insisted to the end that he knew better, and was going to win — and, well, now no one can argue with his success.
Therefore, this victory is also a vindication — confirmation, in the eyes of the millions who evidently wish to believe it, that “Mr. Trump” is gifted with special insight and a special connection with the people.
Such political “miracles” (which is what, on Nov. 8, a senior adviser said a Trump win would be) confer upon their authors a particular kind of authority.
It is charismatic authority, which is not quite the same as personal charm or magnetism, neither of which Trump possesses. Nor, of course, does it have anything in common with the traditional authority of, say, a hereditary prince, or the legal authority that U.S. elections under our Constitution were meant to confer.
Rather, as Max Weber famously defined it, “charismatic authority” stems from a kind of political mojo “resting 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.”
Anyone who has witnessed a Trump rally, and the energy generated by the mutually reinforcing rule-breaking carried out by both candidate and crowd, can confirm that Weber’s concept applies.
Looking ahead to the Trump administration, the hope must be that all of that was so much political spectacle, and that he will accept constitutional and political constraints once in office. The fear, though, is that his charismatic authority intoxicates, portending great difficulty for any who would challenge him, at least at the beginning.
For those outside Trump’s charmed circle, of course, the overwhelming sensation now is cognitive dissonance, and a particularly crippling form of it at that.
Democrats feel that they quite literally do not know what is going on in their own country, and it may be a long time before they can formulate an effective response.
Yet the situation could also be complicated for Republicans who might try to deal with their new leader and the acolytes — Chris Christie, perhaps, or Ben Carson — who may accompany him to Washington, whether their goal is control, cooperation or co-optation.
The Trump White House response could well be “He was right about the election, when everyone else said he was wrong, so who are you to say he’s not right about this, too?” — on Russia, immigration or anything else.
Add to that the fact that some of the Republicans who were reelected to the Senate or the House arguably owe their upset victories to Trump’s coattails, and you have a formula for Trump domination of the GOP establishment, not the opposite.
On paper, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) have ample means to contend with Trump. Yet those consist mainly of conventional parliamentary mechanisms. Trump can go over their heads to the GOP masses, aided by the new high priest of Republican communications, Stephen K. Bannon of Breitbart News, who has just helped Trump to campaign victory and is therefore enjoying his own powerful moment of vindication.
When and if resistance develops, or Trump blunders, or untoward world events — such as a recession — occur, aides will be ready to assist Trump in deflecting blame onto anyone except the new president himself, just as pro-Trump media promiscuously scapegoated the mainstream press and other enemies during the campaign.
The American constitutional system’s checks and balances may be about to face a historic test. If they still work, however, Trump should find himself bogged down in a series of inconclusive political battles, which ultimately disillusion his followers, encourage his opponents and force him into a more conventional, and stable, form of democratic politics.
This would be the disarming of his charismatic authority through its “routinization” — Weber’s word — and, fortunately, the great German sociologist, with his prodigious learning, was able to identify multiple instances of this throughout history. But not even Max Weber ever had to analyze a case quite like Donald Trump.