Max Weber and Trump’s Frustrating Month

Like a lot of other people, I’ve spent the month since President Trump’s inauguration trying to make sense of what’s going on. The sudden shift from policy to posturing and from leading all the people to relitigating the November election certainly has been  disorienting.

Yesterday, I was in a meeting with two students who are taking Sociological Theory via tutorial. Our chapter was covering classical German sociologist Max Weber. After dealing with the requisite explanation of Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, we started talking about rationalization and the forms of social authority.

All of a sudden I had a flash of insight that let me make sense of the Trump phenomenon for the first time since the election.


Weber identified three Ideal Types of authority: Charismatic, Traditional, and Rational-Legal. A charismatic leader has authority based upon the unique characteristics of the individual. Those internal features fit a Great Man theory of leadership. Textbook examples are people like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama.

Traditional authority draws strength from ties to past practice or lineage. The authority stems from some form of pedigree. The son of the tribal chief is the new leader because he is the son. The religious leader exerts authority because he can explain his role through a long litany of prior religious leaders (think Levites).

Rational-Legal authority depends upon one’s ability to work the system. It is this feature that fits with Weber’s focus on bureaucracy.  The greater the technical skill of a leader with rational-legal authority, the better able to make the system work, the stronger the leader. In the words of my favorite quote by sociologist Peter Berger, “only he who truly understands the rules is in a position to cheat.” The key currency is competency. (One of the curiosities of the election is that HRC ran a rational-legal authority campaign when her big challenge was about individual characteristics.) Knowing how the game is played yields authority.

In talking to my students yesterday, I realized that Trump sees himself as a charismatic leader. Years running a family based organization can make you think you’re special. So is putting your name in big letters on buildings around the world. So can starring in a major reality television program. So can spending fifteen months delivering stream of consciousness speeches to adoring crowds.

Except that Trump is not a charismatic leader. The lack of that internal dynamic may be why he continually overstates his own strengths (“first in his class” “least ant-semitic person” “best golfer among the rich guys“). He played the charismatic leader as his public persona for so long that he must go to incredible lengths to maintain the facade. His supporters buy this but others see through it, which is why his overall favorability has dropped below 40%.

What has stymied President Trump in the first month? The Bureaucracy and the Courts. He’s hit with rational-legal authority from one side through leaks from career officials and from those who put proper protocol above the President’s wishes (e.g., Sally Yates). The Courts seem to combine elements of traditional and rational-legal authority, drawing upon both the history of judicial oversight as seen in the constitution and a focus on previous precedent (stare decisis).

The Bureaucracy knows how the system works and can keep the administration from rash action. The Courts legitimize limitations on an activist administration.

If Trump was truly able to draw upon charismatic authority, we’d have an interesting stand-off. In the short term, President Trump might be able to limit the Bureaucracy and outmaneuver the courts (although this is much harder, as Obama discovered). Instead, Trump and those around him pretend he has authority and consistently misplay their hand (like asking the FBI to quash a story).

Given his relatively weak position in Weberian terms, it’s not at all surprising that he thinks the press is his enemy. It’s the only group he has as a competitive foil. The irony is that he used the press to create his pseudo-charismatic authority and they are likely to withhold that status in the days to come.

3 thoughts on “Max Weber and Trump’s Frustrating Month

  1. This post has rationalized something important for me and made me feel like I can understand a current world that doesn’t seem to make much sense. Excellent stuff!

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