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Leadership in the Age of Collapse, Why the Media Hates Biden, and Why Dark Charisma Rules the World

Leadership in the Age of Collapse, Why the Media Hates Biden, and Why Dark Charisma Rules the World

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. The education of a true believer (WaPo)
  2. How Trump’s Allies Are Winning the War Over Disinformation (NYT)
  3. How the uncommitted movement rocked Biden over Gaza (Guardian)
  4. Honesty researcher committed research misconduct, according to newly unsealed Harvard report (Science)
  5. Furious millennial moms would rather make their own cereal than buy Kellogg’s after CEO’s ‘cereal for breakfast’ comment spurs boycott (Fortune)
  6. In on the Joke: The Comedic Trick Trump Uses to Normalize His Behavior (Politico)
  7. Using New Tech Like AI and Wearables at Work Actually Hurts Staff Well-Being (Inc)
  8. My Family’s Daily Struggle to Find Food in Gaza (New Yorker)

Why the Media Hates Joe Biden

Today we’re going to talk about a lot of things—but particularly leadership, why it’s failing, and why things are going so haywire as a result. And we’re going to start with Biden versus Trump.

Have you noticed how much the media…hates Joe Biden? I have. Here’s a little example, and before I give it to you, if you struggle with Biden, over Gaza, or debt, or what have you, that’s perfectly alright, so do I, big-time. We’re going to discuss leadership in an age of collapse, though, and why our societies keep choosing demagogues and lunatics, as if they were lab rats trapped in a devil’s maze with no way out. 

Ready? Here’s a pretty egregious example, from today’s Washington Post.

Washington Post: “Biden spends an enormous amount of time on speech preparation — far more than his predecessors, scholars and aides say — often holding several lengthy prep sessions even for routine remarks. They typically revolve around a near-obsessive scrutiny of factual details, rather than a rehearsal for soaring delivery or sweeping narrative, aides say.

After years of sitting through Biden speech preps, staffers had some of the answers but had to scramble for others. It is a rare Biden speech prep that concludes without someone scurrying to a phone to check a story or track down a detail, said one aide.”

It only gets worse from there. The article in question paints these attributes as negative. And wonders, instead, why Biden isn’t a soaring orator. Of course, he overcame a childhood stutter, and some people just aren’t naturally gifted orators. But does that mean they can’t be leaders? Note how, of course, there’s a clear double standard here. Since when is checking details and facts a bad thing? Shouldn’t we want leaders to do it? And isn’t Trump the example of the diametrical opposite, telling lie after lie? So is that somehow desirable or good? The implication is that Biden’s a nerd, a charmless dork, a stuttering loser, and therefore, a weakling. Not a strapping, bellowing, shoot-first-ask-questions-later, virile strongman. Which is what a leader has to be. Right? Wrong.

This isn’t just about Biden, really. It’s about a far, far bigger issue. What does this framing reveal?

Leadership in the Age of Collapse

The logic of the article above is basically a plea for what’s known as “charismatic leadership.” That’s a formal theory of leadership, by the way, which basically says that certain types of figure can wield influence over masses through inspiration, exhortation, framing things as a kind of crusade, and of course, it has a dark side, too—scapegoating, hate, mindless frenzies, cultism. 

The media’s sort of ongoing quest to paint Biden as a doddering old man, and again, let’s leave our personal feelings aside, because we’re trying to understand a bigger issue—it boils down to this unstated plea, desire, need. One for a charismatic leader.

Let me give you another example or two. Just this week, I saw probably three to four far right wing figures called “firebrands.” That, again, is the effect of this blinkered search for charismatic leadership. A “firebrand,” of course, is a good thing to be—and here, the question: is angrily scapegoating innocent people and rousing sentiments of hate and rate in the masses really a desirable thing to be doing? Is that being a “firebrand”—or demagoguery?

Here’s the point I’m trying to make. Media creates heroes and villains. It creates failures and successes. And in this case, it has an inbuilt bias for charismatic leadership. Now, in a normal time, that might not be a bad thing. But in this age? Of meltdown, lunacy, fanaticism, and unreason? That’s a recipe for disaster.

What a Bias for Charisma Does

Because a bias for charisma in leaders basically creates a demagogue-sized hole waiting to be filled. It’s much, much easier for the far right to point to problems, and scapegoat people, and rage, and even threaten violence. The side of democracy is less about charisma than it is about patience, grace, truth, justice, and equality, none of which particularly inspiring values, at least in this day and age, and maybe rarely, period. 

That’s why charismatic leadership is also attributed to plenty of Pretty Bad People. From Hitler and Stalin, of course, to everyday cult leaders, like Nexium’s Keith Raniere. Raniere had a kind of charisma to the hilt, charming and seducing his way to a powerful following, including billionaires and politicians. Only later was it revealed how he’d abused his charismatic power—and that’s an old story, that follows charismatic leaders around, trauma lingering in their wake, often.

Charismatic leadership is not the only thing we should want in leaders. There are many other kinds of leadership, too. Another school of leadership, for example, is called “transformative leadership,” and that’s about reinventing large organizations, like societies. Still another is called “authentic leadership,” and that’s about sort of reaching the vulnerable place in people, and elevating them to their better selves. Leadership isn’t nearly as simple as just charisma, precisely because it’s a power so seductive it’s often misused, and in this day and age? Oversimplifying leadership to “does this guy have enough charisma or not?!” Isn’t just foolish—it’s dangerous. 

Because of course we’ve already seen the damage that Big Lies, amplified by technology, propelled by instability, exacerbated by feelings of neglect and disillusionment, can do. We should all understand that charisma, right now, is a dangerous thing, and we should look for more from leaders.

The Age of Charisma

And yet this is an age of charisma. We speak of people “getting famous for nothing,” and that’s sort of true, but not quite. What all those “famous for nothing” people—influencers, Kardashians, YouTubers, etcetera—are good at is a kind of often lowest-common-denominator charisma. They weave a kind of magic blanket and lay it over their audiences and followers, and that spell’s incredibly hard to break.

In this age, charisma’s a superpower. We speak of yesterday’s “skills”—analysis, creativity, networking, etcetera—but the truth is that today, charisma rules, and outweighs everything. That’s a sea change from the boring world of yesterday, and it’s staid, workaday leaders. If you have a little bit of it, you too might be able to get “famous for nothing.” That’s a testament to how charisma’s reshaped our world—think of the way young people are glued to their screens. What are they really looking for? Information? Nope. Relationships? Not really. They’re looking for charisma, and when they find it, they consume it voraciously.

So what’s behind this weird, cloying, insatiable, desperate need for charisma? Like I said, and you already know, these are abnormal times, profoundly so. And when things are this destabilized, the future this uncertain, life this bleak—then charisma comes to the fore. People seem to imbue others with magic qualities, and look up to them, as almost superhuman, like Trumpists to do Trump, or rabid fans do to whatever celebrity du jour. Those with charisma—the origin of the word, remember, is “touched by the gods”—seem to be able to present us with what we can’t accomplish, do, be. They’re happier, stronger, fitter, smarter, and so on. And when enough people follow them for it, there seems to be “social proof”—evidence, of this magic, this divine favor.

In times like these, people seek charisma, desperately, just as they are now. That’s the story of Caesar, Hitler, and every demagogue under the sun. We’re not just talking about celebrity or fame here, really, which can and should be accomplished by doing something remarkable or notable. In our age, you can be famous for nothing, and plenty of people are, which is to say, purely because now we have this desperate, sad need for charisma, to shield us from the bitter reality that, well, it’s bleak out there, and life as an average person is pretty bad, and getting worse by the day.

Leadership and Followership in an Age of Collapse

So what is leadership in an age of collapse? I think that these days, we’re probably going to have to turn the question on its head. We say that we’re looking for leadership, but are, we really? Or are we just looking for charisma? To be good “followers,” and that’s not the right word, so let’s just say “peers” or “citizens,” we must look at the truth of a person, and evaluate them carefully, for virtues like wisdom, goodness, truth, justice, and many more. If we’re just seduced by the magic of charisma, then we ourselves have failed the very test that we claim to be imposing on them. And in that game, only demagogues can win.

Leadership in this day and age is more about the “dyad,” in other words, than it is the surface-level performance of top-down militaristic command that it was yesterday. It’s become a much more interactive process, thanks to the internet, where billions evaluate aspiring leaders of all kinds, a million times a second. But so far, we’re not doing it very well. Today, the question is as much learning to be good “followers”—which should by now just mean wiser people—than it is looking for better leaders. Because if you follow the above, a world in despair, this much more easily seduced by artifice and superficiality—in that world, it’s not just good leadership that’s missing, but followership, too. After the seduction, usually, comes the cold light of morning.

The media hates Biden because it’s looking for hardcore, outsized levels of charismatic leadership. That’s a sort of institutional version of poor followership, poor judgment, poor character evaluation. Its evaluation of people falls into these sort of cheesy old-world stereotypes, and Biden’s paying the price. If he’s not a virile strongman, why he must be a weakling! If he’s not a strapping jock, he must be a dork. If she’s not this kind of woman, why, she must be a real bitch. If this minority isn’t a doctor, scientist, or engineer, they’re not really…

A person, is the implication of the logic above. These are called “narratives,” in media-speak, and what they do is to sort of rob us of depth. Based on tired stereotypes and old false dichotomies—nerd/jock, dork/warrior, weakling/strongman, girl/bitch, you get the drift, and that’s far from an exhaustive list—they denude us of engagement with the human world around us, which is “messy,” as we say these days, complex, subtle, nuanced. Nobody, after all, is two-dimensional.

Who wins that game? Only demagogues can win it, really. Because when the human experience is flattened into this sort of two-dimensionality, the demagogue’s story is the one, easiest to condense, compress, hold, understand, that always emerges triumphant. We’re good, they’re bad. They’re impure, we’re pure. They’re monsters, we’re saints. Annihilate, exterminate, destroy. This is the downside of charisma—it exerts this magical pull of inspiration by creating existential missions for people, but that often involves cleaving the world into these sorts of dichotomies, because missions are all-consuming, and so inspiration’s easiest found this way.

So for us to resuscitate leadership, we’re going to need to go way, way beyond this paradigm. This way of thinking, which is now leading us nowhere but backwards. Biden’s story is a complicated one, and the question of supporting him or not is complex, too—as it should be. Good followership is precisely about engaging with difficult moral judgments, piercing the veil of artifice and discerning someone’s character, seeing if they pass tests of virtue, grapple with quandaries and contradictions and dilemmas in the leaders that we choose. All of that takes hard work, and certainly much harder work than simply cleaving the world into good/bad, pure/impure, and deciding that you’re on the side of the righteous, and they’re not.

Leadership is an institution, in other words, that’s badly broken. To reinvent it, new ways of engaging with people must be had, and for that to happen, new spaces of possibility must be sparked. That’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s sort of unclear what I mean, I suppose, but perhaps you get my drift. The interactions between people must change for us to yield renewed forms of leadership, versus charisma and demagoguery.

The Exhaustion of a World Running of the Fumes of Charisma

Isn’t it tiring living in a world, in an age, where charisma’s everything? I find it that way. I find myself longing for more boring times. I didn’t like boring then, but I certainly like it now. I enjoy being boring these days, in fact. I use the internet less and less. Charisma’s exhausting. We’re surrounded by a perpetual, non-stop mania, it seems, everywhere, over everything, from YouTube face to instagram frenzies to TikTok crazes to Trump’s lunatic rants. 

But what does living that way do? All that allows little room for leadership, the real thing, because when we’re wrapped up in panics, manias, frenzies, endlessly circling the bandwagons—what are we reflecting on, learning, understanding, contending with? The human experience is lost in all this, and everything’s reduced to the shoutiest, angriest, prettiest, muscliest, smiliest, or shiniest. This is our wearying charisma-obsessed culture now, but it has a greater effect than I think we often stop to consider.

For the authoritarian side, the age of charisma’s a great boon. But for the side of democracy and civilization? We’re going to have to remember that there are greater virtues, and that in fact, charisma’s not one, really at all. It’s a means to an end, and that end isn’t always a worthwhile one. Leadership, such as it is, will falter until we grow tired of mere charisma’s empty charms, again.

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