The Curse of Charisma: The Dangers of Persuasion by Personality

You need to stop and think about the tapestry of words around you.


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.