The Legitimization of a Tyrant: The Tradition of Wealth in the American Politic


In an article for New York Magazine titled “America Has Never Been so Ripe for Tyranny”, politically conservative British blogger Andrew Sullivan, evokes Plato’s Republic. Not to explain but rather bring to ground the reason behind the current Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump. In what the United States has always looked to achieve as a democratic republic, may have also prompted a susceptibility to a pseudo rogue candidate. While once inconceivable and even a public joke, Donald Trump’s rise as a to-take-seriously candidate, under the microscope, his rise is nothing but if not a cautionary tale. While not clairvoyant, as Sullivan states, Plato described how the regime of tyranny was, or could be, the direct result of a state without social boundaries and no direct authority, therefore a fully pure democracy.

This essay looks to establish how Donald Trump’s rise as a perceived legitimate political leader had a natural course through the traditional authority type, as per Weber, and his campaign’s historical significance through his use of speech acts. I look question Trump’s rise as a purely charismatic leader through the utterances of “he says it like it is”, but rather one of the traditional authority of the unity between democracy and free-market economics in America. I look to further explore how his speech acts, whether or not he becomes president, make him historically significant through what has become public consent of them. While the historical repercussions remain to be seen, his viability to be president regardless of his temperament; has opened up questions, not only about the electoral process, but that of the fundamental issues that arise out of the words “we the people”.

“And such men,” I said, “will desire money just as those oligarchies do, and under cover of darkness pay fierce honor to gold and silver, because the possess storehouses and domestic treasuries where they can deposit and hide them; and they will have walls around their houses, exactly like private nests, where they can make lavish expenditures on women and whomever else they might wish.” (Plato, 548b, Book XIII)


“Instead of men who love victory and honor, they finally become lovers of money-making and money; and they praise and admire the wealthy man and bring him to the ruling offices, while they dishonor the poor man.” (Plato, 552b, Book XIII)


Plato saw the rise of an oligarchy regime, what we currently consider to be the political power of Wall Street, the means by which democracy would follow.  A democracy in which freedom for wealth is the coveted means for a life worth living. A democracy from which then the greediness of money-making would prepare a tyrant to rise. What Plato couldn’t have had a premonition of were the coming historical events which would form the quintessential American tradition; the democratic freedom for money-making.


The Authority of Wealth


The theme of this 2016 election season is the breakoff of the political establishment. All CNN exit polls, as of now, have demonstrated that the general population is dissatisfied with the state of political authority. On the one hand, republican voters are angry with their own party feeling discontent with liberalism taking over the Commander in Chief seat, while democratic voters are disappointed with the current president’s legacy, one they view as too weak to embody the change he once espoused. On the other hand, it is the feeling of disenfranchisement the general public feels as an after effect of the events occurring between 2001 and onward, including the Iraq war, Katrina, and 2008 financial crisis. It is of no surprise that the American public should reflect discontent towards the powers that be. But it is at their own dismay that their options for president for the next four years have come down to the most disliked candidates of all time, including a wealthy celebrity with no political background.

In his essay “The Three Types of Legitimate Rule”, Max Weber delineates what he conceived of as three types of authority that are available to be personified; Legal-Rational, Traditional, and Charismatic. In order for an authority to become legitimized there must be a certain obedience and loyalty to whom holds power and a belief in that legitimacy. Legal authority is based on the normative rules on which belief on their legality rests upon. Traditional is established in the believed sanctity of tradition through which he in power will exercise authority. And Charismatic is the devotion to an exceptional, heroic or exemplary character.  For the purpose of this essay, and because I see no road for how it could apply, I will set aside Legal Authority for it has no role in Donald Trump’s candidacy and there is no law that prohibits him from being so beyond any idealistic or moral sanctions. Therefore, I look to compare Weber’s Traditional and Charismatic forms of authority for the purpose of narrowing down to which type Trump may fall under.

Weber defines the charismatic leader as the individual with attributed virtues which set him apart from ordinary men and, “treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” In order for such attributes to be observable as authoritative, they must be recognized by those subjects whom will be under such authority. “If proof of his charismatic qualifications fails him for long, the leader endowed with charisma tends to think his god or his magical or heroic powers have deserted him.” With this kind of authority, no hierarchy is required as it is up to he who holds power’s whim what his staff and corporation will look like. He stands outside of the normative and rational and “repudiates the past.” He goes onto say that the charismatic leader is opposed to the rational and traditional forms of economic considerations. Weber describes it as:


“What is despised, so long as the genuinely charismatic type is adhered to, is traditional or rational everyday economizing, the attainment of a regular income by continuous economic activity devoted to this end.”


“From the point of view of rational economic activity, charisma is a typical anti-economic force. It repudiates any sort of involvement in the everyday routine world.”


While this kind of authority is often attributed to figures such as social movement leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, religious figures like Muhammad or Jesus Christ, or even sect figures, it is necessary to secularize this concept. We must question what “standing apart” from “routine” really means in the context of the american secular constitutional practice. In thinking of a charismatic secular leader, initially, descriptive notions as to whom Donald Trump is as a politician all lead to the antithetical fact that he is not a politician, therefore charismatic. A man that stands against the routine of politics of which the general public is dissatisfied with. Not a politician but a businessman. He is observed as having exceptional qualities which his followers do not question. His campaign has no hierarchy, is self funded through personal wealth, has been propelled by his personal use of social media and public appearances, and bases itself on selling to the public the sentiment on which their collective consciousness leans towards, anger towards the establishment. An establishment which has now found questioning itself due to his rise to popularity within it, the Republican Party. It’s not that the Republican Party is questioning its own agenda, but its own future stability as Donald Trump rearranges and scrambles what they had previously firmly believed to stand for.

But what Weber describes as the charismatic leader also comes into direct conflict to whom Donald Trump is, in fact. Donald Trump’s wealth is the one thing on which he stands. It is a wealth acquired by the routine of everyday economizing as established by the laws of american politics and free-market economics. He is the archetype individual created by the unification of the regimes of oligarchy and democracy; prompted through inheritance and motivated by the love of money-making, as described by Plato. An individual whose past political participation has meant funding, through wealth created by everyday economizing, the everyday established routine politics. It is the very wealth on which he stands, the same reason why his followers follow him blindly. While his speech acts are a secondary aspect to his rise, which I will further follow with, it is the tradition of money-making and the spirit of capitalism that I argue legitimize him as a leader.

Traditional authority, as described by Weber, is the legitimate handing down of power on the basis of the sanctity of order. “The person or persons exercising authority are designated according to traditionally transmitted rules. The object of obedience is the personal authority of the individual which enjoys by virtue of his traditional status.” The obedience that is given to him is based on, first, the concept that he follow traditional rules which he claims to represent. If these rules are broken, he endangers his own authority. Secondly, a “double sphere” in which the leader is bound by a specific tradition but is free of any specific rules. While resistance may occur when tradition is broken, it may be justified through the claim that what is new has “always been in force but only recently to have become known through the wisdom of the promulgator.” This type of authority needs no staff or administration. Those that are loyal to him come from ties of personal loyalty, patrimonial recruitment or favourites. Bureaucratic administration is often absent and there is no basis for technical training, fixed salaries, or a regular system of appointment. While this kind of authority is often attributed to monarchies or clans, I argue that Donald Trump is the traditional leader that was to naturally arise in The United States.

In the introduction to this essay, I deliberately labeled Trump a “pseudo rogue candidate”. Rogue because his rise in popularity was not seen as conceivable by most; he goes against the same establishment which he is representing, he is knowingly offensive to many demographic  groups, and he is not bound by any moral, idealistic, or political isms. But pseudo because he is tied to one very important ism; Capitalism. While more than half of republican and democratic voters view Wall Street as untrustworthy, Donald Trump is a representation of the majority of elites whom have taken advantage of legal but exploitative loopholes in order to expand their wealth. It is the structure which his followers are angry at the very same one through which he has become now legitimized. It is the tradition of democracy and free enterprise, I argue, which has legitimized Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. While he is not the traditional politician, he is the traditional representation of the legacy of capitalism, particularly Reaganomics. He is the idealized life worth living ingrained in the american collective. It is in this way that he does not require the tradition of politics, but the tradition of the sanctity of money-making and wealth. It is the tradition of corporate rules, money management, and free-market economics which decommissions any need for the traditional political resume and archetype presidential temperament. He is bound to his wealth as an authority but unbound to the rules of the establishment. His being a demagogue becomes irrelevant through the belief that his wisdom as a businessman eclipses the need for truth. It is by his wealth through which his followers rationalize untruths and prejudices as truths rather than by his own ability rationalize arguments. It is known his campaign is tied to no one but himself. His staff is tied to him by nothing but personal ties, self interest, and favoritism rather than merit and appointment. Therefore, I argue that it is the tradition of an idealized life worth living espoused by democracy and free-market enterprise the very reason which makes him a legitimate traditional authority regardless of his ability to be president.


Speech Acts and The Power of a Demagogue

While I argue that the rise of Donald Trump as the presumptive republican nominee had in fact a natural course, it is not to say that his campaign is free from being a possible historical event. A second aspect to his rise in popularity heavily rests upon his public persona. It is this part, a part constructed by his speech acts and performative utterances, that make him the most offensive demagogue in modern politics. And it all began on the very day he announced his candidacy.

In performative utterances, not only can reality be described, but history may change its course. J. L. Austin’s “felicity conditions” set up “rules” to determine when an utterance may cause such a ripple effect in a situation: sincerity, authority and orderliness. There are those that are “low types”, where interruption is not possible as there is an agreement as to who has authority to declare an utterance (much like in a marriage, “I now you declare you husband and wife”, for example), and are judged by simply their failure or success. And then there are those performative utterances where the course of action is muddled by their political context. Thomas Keenan uses Derrida and Arendt to further explore how it is that authority is granted in the public political arena. Whom or what gives the right to a public political utterance and does it speak to truth and justice? If they were to be interrupted in such utterances, would it work? Donald Trump’s presidential announcement speech was formulated. While he was not reading from a teleprompter, the context allowed him to say what he knew were utterances that would propel him into the public arena. And due to the context; truth became irrelevant.

His announcement took place on June 16th, 2015 inside a building bearing his own name:

Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

I’m not doing that to brag, because you know what? I don’t have to brag. I don’t have to, believe it or not.”

“I’m doing that to say that that’s the kind of thinking our country needs. We need that thinking. We have the opposite thinking.

“We have losers. We have losers. We have people that don’t have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain.”

“Sadly, the American dream is dead.

But if I get elected president I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.

Thank you. Thank you very much.”

In an unorganized speech, where he used prejudices and falsehoods, he officially became a candidate for president in the 2016 election by declaring himself as such. It was because of the context, a podium, a crowd, posters, and an interrupted speech, that his announcement became successful regardless of public opinion. Unfortunately, his falsehoods have not been the demise of him. Even though every one of his public appearances is welcomed with protests, he has formed a context  in which interruptions have become failures. Only one public appearance was canceled due to fear of endangering the public, but since then, every single speech act has been followed through.

We could argue that his popularity is based on him being a demagogue, or as some put it “saying it as it is”; but that fact is, he isn’t. Demagogues aren’t new to the public arena. An article from The Atlantic, as early as July 2015, compared Donald Trump to Joseph McCarthy. Both opportunistic candidates that preyed on the public’s fear. While Donald Trump uses immigration and a wall to instill fear and hatred, McCarthy used the Cold War to propel fear of Communism “taking over the american value of freedom and safety”. But the article itself was calling for the end of his political career, waiting for others to denounce his demonization of immigrants. Almost a year later, he is the presumptive nominee for the Republican presidential ticket.

What makes him so different? How is he granted emancipation from truth and fact? While we may argue that it is because he has amassed so many supporters which is why he is protected by those that oppose him, I argue that it is the context of the situation that allows him to continue to promote populist prejudices through the media. This is a context, I argue, established by two facts: (1) he is running for president and therefore is given a platform and, more importantly, (2) he is granted consent as a traditional authority by the public. It is the very authority of wealth, previously discussed, which allows him to be unquestioned. It is because he represents the life worth living, separate from politics, that he is granted immunity from falsehoods and legitimized as a public political leader. He is not a politician, and more importantly, he is not one of the people. He is the “exemplary” individual that represents the American dream. He stands apart from those that struggle financially, as one who has built an empire. His failures and falsehoods don’t matter as long as he is able to promote his wealth and product. A product based on the individual, not truth. He sells the concept of “making deals” based on the concept of unchained power. The very same kind of unchained power that caused the 2008 financial crisis.

The problem then, for his followers, is when he utters “we”. Who does he mean by we? American nationals? The laborer? Farmers? Businessmen? Men? Women? His speeches are full of, if anything, contradictions. He has demonized, not only immigrants, but the country of China, for example. Freely labeling China as an abuser of a globalized economy and trade, he has, as the traditional authority would, claimed that as a businessman, it only makes sense to have taken advantage of immigration laws to further grow his enterprise. Taking advantage of EB-5 program to fund Trump Tower, it is through his wealth and elite status that he is able to do so. His claims become legitimized the moment he declares it as simply “making good deals” and therefore being able to create more wealth. It is this attitude that legitimizes him as an “exemplary” authority in his supporters eyes, regardless of its contradictions.

While he once claimed that he could shoot someone on fifth avenue and still not lose support, I argue that it is not about what he does or says. It is about what he represents. Preying on the public’s fear of the “other” has been analyzed and criticized frontwards and backwards, and failed to do anything to his popularity. He is a demagogue; a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and self contradicting demagogue. But nonetheless, his followers do not care. He remains to be a traditional authority. The legacy of free-market economics, unchained power, a non politician and a tyrant that represents the “all-american” dream. Historical, because he  is all those things.


Notes and References

  1. Sullivan, Andrew. “American Has Never Been So Ripe For Tyranny: Democracies end when they are too democratic”. New York Magazine. Print edition: May 2, 2016
  2. Aglesta, Jennifer. “Dissatisfaction, anger dominate year-end review of Washington”. CNN: December 19, 2015.
  3. Beamon, Todd. “CNN Exit Polls: Anger, Dissatisfaction Strong Among GOP Voters in 3 States”. CNN: March 15, 2016
  1. Staff. “Here’s Donald Trump’s Announcement Speech”. Time Magazine: June 16, 2015.
  2. Beinart, Peter. “The New McCarthysm of Donald Trump”. The Atlantic: July 21, 2015
  3. Drucker, Jesse. “Trump Tower Funded by Rich Chinese Who Invest Cash for Visas”. Bloomberg Politics: March 6, 2016.
  4. Plato, , and Allan Bloom. “The Republic”. New York: Basic Books, 1968. Print.
  5. Weber, Max. “The Three Types of Legitimate Rule”. Berkeley Publications in Society and Institutions 4(1): 1-11, 1958
  6. Keenan, Thomas. “Drift: Politics and the Simulation of Real Life”. MIT, Grey Room 21: 2005

Author: subed924

I like writing about socio-political issues. I do it both in Spanish and English, depending on my aim, context, and general mood.

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