Cult of Leadership v. Rule of Law

10 mins read
Photo by Emmanuel Huybrechts. (CC BY 2.0)

Trump fired Inspector General Michael Atkinson saying this:

Then on Monday, Trump fired deputy IG, Glenn Fine, which removes him from his role as chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

Again, Trump was open about why: He didn’t think Fine was loyal enough to him.

Benjamin Wittes, writing for Lawfare, asks why this isn’t a national scandal. Wittes notes that (1) The pandemic is absorbing everyone’s attention and (2) We know GOP senators are cool with Trump’s democracy-smashing behavior.

Without Congress on board, the only “oversight” of the president can come from the voters. Wittes is also correct: The election will be about what kind of country we will have going forward.

It seems to me that Max Weber (1864-1920) explains it best. The brilliant Weber (1864-1920) said three sources of authority inform different kinds of governments:

  • Traditional
  • rational-legal, and
  • charismatic leader.

“Traditional” would be a monarchy.

“Rational-legal” is what we call Rule of Law, and includes democratic republics like ours. The idea behind Rule of Law is that the same law applies to everyone, including elected officials, and that power is separated so that the “leader” isn’t the one who makes the laws.

Weber calls the third source “charismatic leader.” (Today we’d say “demagogue” or “cult leader.”) Authority flows from the word of the leader. His word is law.

The US was founded as a Rule of Law, democratic republic, but there’ve always been a fights over what that means. We called ourselves a democratic Rule of Law, republic while women were disenfranchised and a large portion of the people were enslaved. The logic was that a “majority” of people wanted it that way— but only white men were allowed to vote.

It wasn’t until after 1954 that we began transitioning to a true liberal democracy.

GOP leaders are not goofing and accidentally breaking rules and norms. They’re doing it on purpose. Laws like those against insider trading are fairly recent, and flow from agencies that many GOP members believe are unconstitutional.

This is from a libertarian “Tenth Amendment purist” website:

The site claims that the New Deal is unconstitutional, and everyone should “Reject all unconstitutional ACTS!” This website cloaks its rejection of law in Rule of Law, language, but it IS lawbreaking.

When Trump said “I alone can fix it,” he signaled a rejection of Rule of Law,and establishment of himself as the source of authority.

Stephen Miller drove the point home when he said Trump’s authority “will not be questioned.”

In a speech in MI, Trump told his adoring crowds that “Our laws are so corrupt and so stupid.” The laws didn’t flow from him so they had no authority.

Our problem: More than a third of the population prefers a Cult of Leadership to a Rule of Law democracy. Yes. They prefer.

Democracy is messy business. You have to compromise. You don’t always get your own way. People don’t like that.

From the perspective of a Rule of Law, democratic republic, this is a travesty:

The president is thumbing his nose at Rule of Law, and separation of powers.

From the perspective of a Cult of Leadership, though, it makes perfect sense. In a leadership cult, there is one source of authority: The leader. Moreover, Rule of Law, requires factuality.

To survive, Rule of Law must preserve factuality.

To survive, Cult of Leadership must destroy factuality. That’s why your MAGA friends consciously and deliberately reject facts and science. That’s why the Fox propaganda loop is deliberately undermining factuality.

Some GOP Senators pretended to be torn (looking at you Senator Collins) but down deep, each of them prefer to live in a country in which Trump’s word is law over a Rule of Law, liberal democracy.

The November election will be about Rule of Law v. Cult of Leadership.

The good news is that there are way more of us. The Trump-FOX GOP can only win through voter suppression. The pandemic opened a path to a Democratic landslide in November: Mail-in voting.

Good question. Combining all of this with scholarship from political psychology brings us to the conclusion that about 1/3 of the population has what psychologists call an authoritarian disposition.

In this book:

is an essay called “Authoritarianism Is Not a Momentary Madness, But an Eternal Dynamic Within Liberal Democracies.” (Authors Karen Stenner and Jon Haidt ) Karen made it available free, here:

I had an “ah ha!” moment reading it.

The authors (and Karen in other work) describe people who have authoritarian dispositions, and distinguish such people from traditional or “status quo” conservatives. Those with authoritarian dispositions are averse to complexity (which includes diversity).

They prefer sameness and uniformity. They can be good citizens because (when they aren’t riled) they respect institutions and authority. However, when faced with a normative threat, they can become dangerous. (I’m paraphrasing and simplifying the article.)

A normative threat is something that threatens “sameness and order.” It’s a perceived threat. Trump creates normative threats when he talks about “invaders” at the border, “illegal” immigrants bringing crime, etc. This riles those with authoritarian dispositions.

When confronted with a normative threat, authoritarians have a strong reaction. They become fearful and angry. They can be violent & tolerate violence in others. Trump governs by creating normative threats. He deliberately keeps the authoritarians riled.

I don’t think so. At one point Karen Stenner refers to them as simple-minded avoiders of complexity. I believe that stirring their fears is dangerous and irresponsible. I like to think of them as victims. The sense I get is they are who they are. That’s how they were made.

The idea is that some people, because of their nature or psychological makeup, will never live comfortably in a liberal democracy.

The study concludes that about 1/3 of the population has an authoritarian disposition. That number pops up often. It’s actually the percentage of support Hitler had when he came to power.

The studies also show that the 1/3 is the same across cultures. Again, I’m not a psychologist, but it seems to me if 1/3 of the people across cultures have this same psychological make up, something about may be inborn.

What’s totally cool about Twitter is I start talking about a scholarly article, and the author appears. Here Karen Stenner (the author of the article I’m discussing) responded to my comment about how much is inborn:

I’ve often thought that when the crisis is over, some of the soul-searching we have to do as a democracy is assess how we can better deal with the 1/3 of the population that will never feel completely comfortable in a liberal democracy.

For the next 7 months, I think the best strategy is not to try to reach the people caught in the FOX-Trump net. I think it’s best to avoid riling them (so says the person who keeps getting testy with doomsaying. Yeah, me) Win in November by turning out the pro-Rule of Law vote, and then when the crisis is over, consider how to make them less dangerous.

Aaaand . . . the author of the study also provides cliff note here:

Thanks, Karen!

I feel like I’m teaching again (I enjoyed teaching because I learned so much). But this time, my students don’t raise their hands and ask, “Do we have to know that?” or “Is that going to be on the test?”

Originally posted on Musing About Law, Books, and Politics.
Re-posted with permission.


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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and CNN.com. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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