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The Curse of Charisma: The Dangers of Persuasion by Personality

One morning last week I was taking some time from my daily work schedule to relax in front of my monstrous, entertaining, and enjoyable big-screen television. As is often my way, I was watching the History Channel. I have an affinity for history and what better place to stoke my passion that to plunk myself into the midst of World War II. I guess if it were not for WWII, there might not be a need for the History Channel.

As a fresh episode was opening, I heard something which led me directly to the computer here in my office. There was a statement targeted to one specific time in history, but it seemed so universal that I felt compelled to share it with you. In the opening episode of a series entitled "Fatal Hitler" I heard a comment which seems to move not only throughout history but can resonant loudly with the nation wherein you and I live during this very day.

Let me paraphrase the words as I heard them. The narrator spoke of that particular show as being a "cautionary tale" about what can happen when a civilized nation falls under the influence of a charismatic leader. The man to whom this comment was targeted is Adolph Hitler. The results of his ability to sway the hearts and minds of people with his legendary rhetoric are still emblazoned in the hearts of a world forever altered by his madness.

Truly his actions are emblematic of the thought that charisma may be viewed as a force for good as well as a force for evil (see also Napoleon as well as Jim Jones and Kool Aid). However, are we not seeing something akin to this 'hero-worship" style of charisma now in a number of cities, towns, counties, and states all around our nation? Heck, why not toss in the nation as a whole. We seem to be searching for some sort of "white knight' racing in on their trusty horse to save us all from the trials and tribulations which seemingly abound today.

So what is your point Harry? Why are you sharing a quotation about one of history's most hated madmen with us? How is it that you can possibly compare that scourge of the world to what is happening in America today. The answer is really quite simple my fiends. I am speaking of a concept and a set of attrubutes, not the individual madman.

Let me suggest that I want to warn you about the fact that when you hear thoughts and words that sound really pleasing to your heart and mind you need to stop and think about the tapestry of words which is being woven around you. Let me suggest that you should not simply rush out and just join the throng which is marching down Main Street in a rush to judgment. Neither should you be the one carrying the burning torch amidst the throng which is marching toward the castle where the monster was made.

Unfortunately, my friends, this sort of rush to judgment nonsense is happening far too often in this age of 24-hour media madness being driven by our cable (and regular) news outlets. Rather discussing then discussing the rational argument, the darlings of the media (both left and right) plug the sensational rant. Rather than study the issues, they push the sound bites. Their distain for all of us is sadly quite evident when they move to pontificate rather than inform: When they lecture rather than discuss. When they tell us in an "oh so condescending" manner how really ignorant they see us to be.

Many times through the years I have wondered just how a civilized nation like Germany could go down the road to death and destruction which they gladly seemed to take. The issue of charisma makes sense as a starting point, however just what did it take to seal the deal with the public as a whole? It might even be that the charismatic leader gave voice to a whole range of subterranean feelings which lie dormant just below society's surface. The point here is that the charismatic person swayed the masses.

Like many of you, I labor daily in the salt mines of municipal fire protection. As a commissioner I work to provide the funds and as an active-life member of our local fire company, I work to provide the service. Let me suggest that the current debate over such issues as shared services, budget cuts, and municipal consolidations here in New Jersey (and around the country too) are being framed in a manner similar to that used in the Germany of the 1930's. As I have reviewed the issues in Germany, I see some striking similarities.

One of the primary tasks which a leader often uses to build their case for seizing power involves the creation of 'straw dogs'. These images are the creations upon which the charismatic leader can then heap abuse to divert the minds of the people from the leader's true central purpose: the accumulation of power. In Nazi Germany Hitler created a number of scapegoats. These unfortunate targets were the Communists, the Jews, and the Gypsies, among others. Take it from me, the results of this dehumanizing process were too terrible to believe, but they really happened, didn't they?

Modern politicians are using yet another variant on this philosophy. Like many political leaders around the United States, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has gone out of his way to demonize the public sector employees of our state. He has conducted a 'scorched earth' campaign against the public school teachers of our state and blasted the benefits which have been earned through the years. Is this not really just one more version of the age-old advice about how much easier it is to seize power though the mechanism of 'divide and conquer'? You bet it is.

Our governor has created an 'us and them' mindset among the citizens of our state. He has mobilized the private sector against the public sector. In the ensuing conflict he has gained the power to pass a number of Draconian measures which impact many in our state (me included. However, his true motives are hidden by the fact that his ideas are inviting and made to seem palatable to those who are not affected by them. The people who are supporting him in his attacks fail to see how easy it would be for him to suddenly change his focus and strike out at them, if it served his personal interests.

Let me now share another approach to seizing power which, I fear, we are now seeing in the nation. See if this argument doesn't sound familiar to you. You and I are continually hearing politicians of all stripes and kinds telling us that we need to do 'this or that' because it is the right thing to. If ever a statement cried out for clarification, this is a perfect example. Right for whom is the question which jumps into my brain.

Sadly, the campaign against the hated minorities in the Germany of the 1930's and early 1940's was met with precious little push back by the masses. It was made to seem like "the right thing to do" by those in power. It was deemed as essential to continuing the success which had been created by the leader. Of course once the Nazis had seized power, well, by golly, how much could the masses ever be expected to know? They knew what they were told by the central information bureau at the home office in Berlin.

I guess if something isn't affecting you personally then it must not be all that bad. However, my friends, I am tired of being treated like a mushroom. I am tired of being kept in the dark and fed crap by the politicians at all levels. How many times have you heard a politician make statements which could literally be translated as, "…shut up and let me lead?" That is the problem about which I am speaking. Let me share a thought from my childhood which seems to apply here. "Who died and left you boss?" You have had to have heard that one too.

Let me now issue a warning to you. Some of the worst leaders in history have come to power through the use of the ballot box. They had a fabulous line of crap and delivered it in a manner which can best be called, "…appealing and mesmerizing." Once a nation falls under the sway of a charismatic leader, pretty much anything can happen. See if you can determine whether the following governmental example springs from the 1930's or the New Jersey of 2012. Take your time to think about this one.

An unelected group of people (a commission) has been created by act of the elected legislature to decide whether individual communities can be allowed to continue operating as individual governmental units or whether they must be 'forced' to combine with nearby local municipal entities. Oh, and by the way, if the local municipality chooses to ignore the mandate of this unelected group of politicians, they will be slapped with severe financial penalties. Am I now expected to salute and shout "Zeig Hiel" to the powers that be. I think not.

Let me offer an important question to you. Why is this being done? Because it is good for you and it is the right thing to do. That is the rationale being offered by our leaders. Nonsense, my friends, I see this as an egregious attempt by the people who think that they are smarter than you or I to tell us what to do because it is "good for us."

What can you and I do to battle this growing tendency to strip us of our freedoms? We can provide feedback. We can express our opinions to our elected officials, and we can write about it. We need to make pains in the butt of ourselves. Let me share one of the primary lessons I garnered from my time in the public policy analysis program at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." Yes it is as simple as this.

We are not yet a dictatorship. We must use the hard-won freedoms which have been secured at great sacrifice to perpetuate the dreams upon which America was built. Let me assure you that I do not want a religious zealot leading my nation, but I want someone who will respect my right to believe in the God of our Fathers. I do not want a bully leading my nation, but neither do I want some wimpy, 'give the enemy what they want' sort of butt-wipe.

I suddenly feel like a little kid asking Santa Claus for my Christmas presents. I want leaders who are:

  • Forthright but not obnoxious
  • Brave but not foolhardy
  • Honest
  • Willing to listen
  • Willing to share
  • Willing to compromise when necessary
  • Civil to one another

I do not want leaders who preach a 'my way or the highway' form of abusive form of coercion. Let me close by sharing a bit of wisdom from the Book of Proverbs.

  • Wise men lay up knowledge: but the mouth of the foolish is near destruction.
  • Good advice rolls off the heart of a foolish person.

Let me suggest that it is not too late to keep our nation from going off the deep end into the abyss of eternal irrelevancy. However, the effort needs to start at the lowest possible level. Each of you (and me too) needs to do one positive thing per day for the rest of your lives. At the very least, stand up for what you believe and engage others in meaningful discussions. Listen, think, and be tolerant. Good luck with your efforts and God Bless.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his "A View From my Front Porch" blog. He recently published his first e-book, Running a Volunteer Fire Department. You can reach Harry by e-mail at drharrycarter@optonline.net.

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