MEN ON HORSEBACK: THE POWER OF CHARISMA IN THE AGE OF REVOLUTION
By David A. Bell
After the Second Punic War had ended the two giants who’d faced off in that epic conflict, Hannibal and Publius Cornelius Scipio (later Africanus) quickly fell back to earth. We might think of them as the original men on horseback: figures who were great military leaders, saviours of their nation, and semi-divine (contemporary propaganda had them both descended directly from gods). But backlash was inevitable, and not I think in response to their ambition. It was more a case of political checks and balances.
Hannibal was essentially banished from Carthage and scrambled around as a general-for-hire in some losing causes before killing himself in Bithynia as the Romans were closing in. Scipio, who also took the route of exile, may have killed himself as well, though all we know for sure is that he died embittered at the ingratitude of Rome.
In Men on Horseback historian David Bell isn’t as interested in these ancient types, focusing on the peculiarly modern traits of the charismatic leader. Still, it’s worth remembering that these people have been with us for a while, often coming to the same end.
Bell identifies the Age of Revolution (the period at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries) as a great seed time for men on horseback. Most of his book consists of pocket bios and analysis of the careers of George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Toussaint Louverture, and Simón Bolivar. When these national heroes arose is an integral part of the story, as there was a lot more to their rise to power than just their horsemanship.
In fact, I think this is the most important question that Men on Horseback addresses. To what extent were these men self-made, and to what extent were they the product of a particular cultural and political environment? Is charisma “primarily an exceptional, magnetic quality possessed by individuals or, rather, something projected onto them by their followers, which is to say, a fiction invented to serve a social and political purpose”?
Of course the only answer is that it’s a bit of both. In so far as such a book as this has application to our own time, however, I think its interest is all on the side of the matrix of factors that contribute to or enable the rise of the charismatic leader. These, in turn, are broadly cultural: “The ability to appear charismatic depends not only on the individual in question but on which traits are likely to elicit such beliefs and feelings within a particular community. In other words, it is a question not just of psychology but of culture.” The charismatic leader is what his age demands, and if he did not exist it would become necessary to invent him.
At least that was the case in the eighteenth century. With Washington, for example, “Americans were desperate for a ‘great man’ and convinced themselves – for the moment without much evidence – that they had found him in the physically dazzling Washington.” Napoleon had to save his revolution, while Loverture and Bolivar had to lead theirs.
People cry out for a leader and in doing so invest him with supernatural gifts. The problem is that celebrity has gone on to become such a debased coinage. Though he is never mentioned by name, the dark shadow hanging over Bell’s book is Donald Trump. The case of Trump, however, highlights what may be the biggest transformation the concept of charisma has undergone in our time.
Put simply, Donald Trump is a mere celebrity, meaning his fame is divorced from any personal accomplishments. One doubts he can ride a horse as well as a Kardashian, much less a Bolivar. While the great men Bell describes each had their shortcomings, they were at the very least effective military leaders and capable politicians. Trump went bankrupt trying to run a casino, and even his speeches and rallies are dull and incoherent. As with many contemporary populist leaders he is less a strong man than a buffoon, his fame a product of playing a comic character on a reality show.
How far then can Bell’s project of “writing charisma into history” be taken in a media/political environment where the manufacture of charisma has outstripped any relation to individual achievement? Charisma, Bell concludes, “is an integral, inescapable part of modern political life – democracy’s shadow self.” But like democracy itself it has become a force to be constructed and stage-managed. Today’s strong men aren’t the real thing any more than today’s democracy is representative or responsive, but the would-be charismatic can still play a man on horseback on TV. “Surely the fabrication of charisma requires more than propaganda,” Bell writes. Perhaps this can be asserted with regard to North Korea, the example Bell cites, but North Korea is a country closer to the Stone Age than the eighteenth century. It’s a principle that no longer holds true for our own marvelous land of Oz.
Review first published online August 11, 2020.