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Can Max Weber explain Donald Trump’s presidency?

Max Weber’s theory of legitimate power can help explain Donald Trump’s presidency, in terms of how he was elected and how he has acted as president. This theory is based in three ideal types: traditional authority rooted in tradition and custom, charismatic authority rooted in exceptional characteristics of a leader, and legal rational authority rooted in law.[1] These provide a useful framework within which its more unconventional, and at times incoherent features can be assessed. Weber also assessed the American political system as it functioned in 1919, and his analysis of this can be used to understand how the system currently functions in relation to Trump as candidate and president.[2] Some of the defining features separating Trump from the established political order are: his ad hoc style of policymaking, disregard for civility in public relations, and lack of ‘political correctness’.[3] Trump’s presidency and administration has attracted continual comparisons with fascism from across the political spectrum, which within itself indicates how abnormal and foreign it has been perceived to be.[4] The desire to find some framework within which Trump can be understood, outside of conventional understandings of American politics, further reflects that it requires explanation. 

It is questionable whether Weber intended there to be a sharp delineation between the different types of authority he identifies. Dylan Riley argues that the three forms of rule identified by Weber cannot function effectively together within the same overarching political system, and that it is the presence of each of these in the American government under Trump, which has created the ‘incoherence’ seen throughout his presidency.[5] However, Weber himself clarified that the existence of any one of these ideal types in reality is rare.[6] This casts some doubt on the idea that the abnormal aspects of Trump’s presidency can be explained by the failure of his particular form of rule to conform to any one of these types. If, as Weber appears to suggest, it is normal for governments to be run with overlapping forms of power then the combination of the three in the United States government is not abnormal. However, perhaps the extent to which Trump wields one particular form of power, charismatic, differentiates him from other presidents and presidential candidates. 

In his ‘Politics as Vocation’ essay, Weber outlines what a political power must have in order to take and maintain control over a political administration. These are: obedience of the subjects, and control over material assets which allow the legitimised application of physical force. Through ‘habits of obedience’, rulers can then utilise this power through the channels of administrative staff and materials.[7] Weber’s description provides a useful framework for assessing Trump’s operation of presidential power, particularly in highlighting how this deviates from the norm. Much of the power described by Weber is facilitated through the office of the presidency. However, in achieving this power, Trump arguably employed a great deal of charismatic power. 

Weber defines charismatic leaders as those considered by others to hold ‘supernatural, superhuman, or exceptional powers and qualities’.[8] There is a variety of evidence placing Trump within this category. Before his presidential campaign, Trump was best known for his status as billionaire real estate mogul and celebrity, with his reality television show ‘The Apprentice’.[9] This gave him a high level of name recognition going into the 2016 election campaign.[10]Whilst this is a form of charismatic power, reflecting ‘exceptional qualities’ in Trump, this status within itself did not win him the election, nor would it have significant consequence in his navigation of power as president. Perhaps more significant is his rhetoric. This has often deviated from political norms and been accused of being xenophobic and racist. Perhaps a most famous example is in the speech he made announcing his presidential bid, when he described Mexican immigrants: ‘They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists’.[11] Arguably, the sentiment expressed is within itself part of his appeal to his supporters. Some sociologists have explained his election as the result of deep-rooted sexism, racism, and xenophobia within the American electorate.[12] However, perhaps more significant is that he felt able to make such remarks at all. It is arguably ‘exceptional’ for a presidential candidate to express such sentiments so openly and face few consequences. Trump places himself outside of convention, and in doing so successfully, presents himself as having the almost ‘superhuman’ qualities described by Weber. Paul Joosse argues that charismatic leaders are able to dominate and effectively challenge traditional morality and legal-rational legitimacy, overturning convention.[13] Thus, Weber’s category of charismatic power can explain how the unconventional aspects of Trump’s presidency have helped rather than hinder his acquisition of power.  

Weber suggests a true charismatic leader is wholly dedicated to their cause and work. The exception is one who ‘in the blink of an eye, vainly takes advantage of a narrow moment to gain power’.[14] This characterisation has been levelled at Trump, who has often been described as a populist.[15] However, populist movements often have concrete principles and real policy aims. Arguably, whilst Trump’s campaign may have had the appearance of populism, this is perhaps more due to its utilisation of media spectacle, rather than based in substantive policy.[16] For example, former president, and democrat, Jimmy Carter, stated at the beginning of 2016, that he would prefer Donald Trump to win the presidency over Ted Cruz, as he believed he would be ‘completely malleable’, as opposed to Cruz who is not and has ‘far right-wing policies’.[17] If this characterisation is accurate, there is a hollowness to the charismatic power Trump wields, and it is devoid of the purpose and cause Weber suggests is fundamental to the competent wielding of such power. 

Such incoherence appears in Trump’s proposal to build a Mexican border wall. From his presidential campaign and through his presidency, this has undergone many changes, in relation to its funding, the materials for its construction, and its extent.[18] Trump initially stated the wall would be directly paid for by Mexico, perhaps as a show of American international hegemony. However, this has changed to indirect payment through a trade agreement, which does not actually force Mexico to pay.[19] Such a turn-around speaks to the lack of an anchoring ‘cause’ behind Trump’s presidency. Weber specifies that a charismatic ruler should have a cause. Actual policy has not matched the rhetoric of Trump’s candidacy and presidency, being both malleable and incoherent, raising the question whether he is a legitimate charismatic leader as Weber defined.   

Dylan Riley has argued that within the White House administration, Trump has operated within Weber’s category of patrimonial power, exampling the appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a senior advisor.[20] Patrimonial power functions through personal loyalty to the leader, and is a form of traditional authority.[21] This categorisation explains aspects of Trump’s administration such as his emphasis on loyalty, and the high staff turnover rate.[22] However, Trump exerts power in ways which bare some resemblance to patrimonial power, but do not fit this category. For example, former FBI director James Comey wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times explaining why established figures such as attorney general Bill Barr and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein have been perceived as ineffective in challenging the president over various issues.[23] Comey argues these figures lack ‘inner strength’ to challenge assertions made by Trump, and thus become complicit in his ‘lies’.[24] Trump creates a web of complicity amongst almost anyone in close proximity to his administration, discrediting them as they fail to effectively challenge him, and end up essentially supporting the administration, as they lack ‘strength’ against the weight of Trump’s will. This perhaps explains why political figures who do not have a personal commitment to Trump still struggle to provide effective opposition and often appear to support him. Therefore, some aspects of Trump’s presidency cannot entirely be understood within Weber’s categories of legitimate power. Comey, who was fired by Trump, has been intensely critical of the administration, and his analysis should be seen within this context.[25] It is however useful to understand the perspective of someone who self-admittedly has been subject to this form of power. 

Hitherto, this essay has explored ways in which Trump might or might not be understood within Weber’s categories of power. Weber can also be useful in explaining Trump’s presidency, when looking at how this interacts with the institutions of the United States political system. In ‘Politics as Vocation’, Weber assessed this as it operated in 1919. Since the 1820s, he wrote, a ‘Party Machine’ has developed, with the increasing dominance of political parties. Their primary function is preparing for the Presidential election campaign, and they play a crucial role in determining its outcome.[26] Weber clearly recognised the hegemony of the parties in the American political landscape. He described them as organised through a ‘spoils system’. In this, ‘spoils’ (financial and political power) can be gained by party staff, who in turn work to secure the election of the party’s presidential candidate, creating a mutually reliant relationship between the two.[27] This is arguably not entirely dissimilar to Weber’s category of patrimonial power. Whilst this system is not founded on personal relationships, the system of reward within it bares similarities to the relationship between the patrimonial leader and their supporters, who may expect favours and privileges in return for their loyalty.[28] However, an unconventional feature of Trump’s presidency is perhaps how his candidacy and presidential campaign existed to a large extent, outside of this norm. 

Trump has often conflicted with the Republican Party establishment. For example, over his perceived floundering over repealing the Affordable Care Act, he faced criticisms from Republican lawmakers.[29] During his presidential campaign he clashed with other more establishment Republican presidential candidates, such as Senator Ted Cruz at a personal level, Trump calling Cruz a liar, Cruz in turn calling Trump a ‘snivelling coward’.[30] Trump’s candidature posed a challenge to the party political system. The spoils system Weber describes would perhaps necessitate a degree of consensus within the individual parties to be effective. Trump demonstrated he did not need the complete support of the party, which links to his characterisation as a charismatic ruler. Charismatic power focuses almost exclusively on the leader as an individual, stemming from their personal attributes.[31] If he wields this form of power more prominently than any other, this perhaps explains why as a political outsider, Trump was able to defeat opposition from within the Republican party. Paul Joose argues that Trump gained victory over Republican opposition because he outflanked them on issues such as immigration and terrorism. Trump was able to utilise the basic moral framework of the party but appear ‘stronger’ on key issues than his opponents.[32] He used the charismatic power stemming from his outsider status, to gain dominance within the political establishment.

Within the Trump administration, issues which previously may have garnered some cross-party consensus have become divisive. Ideological polarisation in American politics generally has been growing since the 1970s.[33] This may threaten the third form of authority, the legal, which is predicated upon the acceptance of legal statutes as valid and upheld by rationality.[34] When anything and everything becomes fair game for political dispute and open to interpretation, a breakdown in legal authority may arise. This can be capitalised upon by charismatic leaders. Trump’s departure from political convention, such as in aforementioned his comments on Mexican immigration, was arguably simply an elevation of this ongoing process of ideological polarisation. However, whilst his opponents within the Republican party were confined by the requirement to adhere to the party line, Trump was not, making them appear weak. The hegemony of the party system, in combination with the ongoing ideological polarisation of American politics (created by the hegemony of the party system) therefore can be seen to have aided Trump’s ascendency to power, because he was able to subvert it.

 Weber’s assessment of the institutional make up of America, though based in how it existed towards the beginning of the twentieth-century, can therefore help explain Trump’s presidency. The three categories of legitimate power Weber provides can also help to dissect the way power operates from, and within the Trump administration. As has been shown, perhaps Trump’s biggest deviation from political normalcy, and thus the features of his presidency requiring explanation, stem from his particular form of charismatic rule. This manifests through his rhetoric, which plays on his position as a political outsider. This in turn disrupts other forms of power within the American political system, such as legal-rational, creating some of the incoherencies and inconsistencies which require explanation. As has been shown, there are however aspects of Trump’s power which fall outside of Weber’s categories, which therefore cannot entirely explain his presidency.   

[1] Kieran Allen, Max Weber: A Critical Introduction (London, 2004) 100.

[2] Max Weber, ‘Politics as Vocation’, in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, ed. and trans. Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters (New York, NY, 2015) 172. 

[3] Dylan Riley, ‘What is Trump?’ New Left Review, Issue 114 (Nov-Dec, 2018) 24.

[4] Ibid. 5-6. 

[5] Ibid. 28. 

[6] Max Weber, ‘Politics as Vocation’138. 

[7] Ibid. 137.

[8] Ken Morrison, Marx, Durkheim, Weber: Formations of Modern Social Thought (London, 1995) 284.

[9] Michael M. Grynbaum and Ashley Parker, ‘Donald Trump the Political Showman, Born on “The Apprentice”’, The New York Times (July 16, 2016) 

[10] Andrew Dugan ‘Among Republicans, GOP Candidates Better Known Than Liked’, Gallup, (July 24, 2015)

[11] Katie Reilly, ‘Here Are All the Times Donald Trump Insulted Mexico’ Time, (August 31, 2016)

[12] Andrew L. Whitehead, Samuel L. Perry, Joseph O. Baker, ‘Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election’, Sociology of Religion, Vol. 79, Iss. 2 (Summer 2018) 148.

[13] Paul Joose, ‘Expanding Moral Panic Theory to Include the Agency of Charismatic Entrepreneurs’, The British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 58 (2018) 997.

[14] Max Weber, ‘Politics as Vocation’ 138.

[15] Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Cornell, 1995, revised 2017) xi.

[16] Douglas Kellner, American Nightmare: Donald Trump, Media Spectacle, and Authoritarian Populism (Rotterdam, 2016) 5. 

[17] Stephanie Condon, ‘Jimmy Carter: I would choose Donald Trump over Ted Cruz’, CBS News, (Feb. 3, 2016) 

[18] Ron Nixon and Linda Qiu, ‘Trump’s Evolving Words on the Wall’, The New York Times (Jan. 18, 2018)

[19] Linda Qiu, ‘The Many Ways Trump Has Said Mexico will Pay for the Wall’ The New York Times (Jan. 11, 2019) 

[20] Riley, ‘What is Trump?’ 25.

[21] Morrison, Marx, Durkheim, Weber… 289.

[22] Riley, ‘What is Trump?’ 26.

[23] James Comey, ‘How Trump Co-opts Leaders like Bill Barr’, The New York Times, (May. 1, 2019) 

[24] Ibid.

[25] Tom McCarthy and Martin Pengelly, ‘Comey book likens Trump to a mafia boss ‘untethered to truth’’, The Guardian, (April 13, 2018) 

[26] Weber, ‘Politics as Vocation’ 172.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Morrison, Marx, Durkheim, Weber… 290.

[29] Jonathon Martin and Maggie Haberman, ‘Fear and Loyalty: How Donald Trump Took Over the Republican Party’, The New York Times, (Dec. 21, 2019)

[30] Donald Trump ‘Watch President Donald Trump and Ted Cruz Move from Bitter Rivals to BFF’s’ NBC News (Oct. 23, 2018) (speech)

[31] Morrison, Marx, Durkheim, Weber… 285. 

[32] Joose, ‘Expanding Moral Panic Theory…’ 1001.

[33] Riley, ‘What is Trump?’ 19.

[34] Weber, ‘Politics as Vocation’ 138.


Published by amyandkatherine

We are two friends of 12 years, trying to start careers in journalism.

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