The servant-leader and the man on horseback — power and populism in the 21st century

The servant-leader and the man on horseback — power and populism in the 21st century
From left: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ronen Zvulun) I Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. (Photo: Milos Bicanski / Getty Images) I Former South African president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Darren Stewart / Gallo Images) I Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Events in the US and South Africa are being watched carefully by politicians to figure out how to harness grievance and perpetual legal battles as potent tools for gaining political power. Actual policies now matter less. This is a loss for us all.

Leadership — or perhaps its absence — is in the news and in the minds of voters in many nations in a global year of elections. Picking a nation’s leaders via elections is one thing, but understanding how a winner leads and the way they connect with citizens as they gain power may be even more important.

More than 60 years ago, in his classic volume Presidential Power, the US political scientist Richard Neustadt argued that at its heart, presidential power is “the power to persuade” rather than the pretend power of issuing orders, commanding or directing. Or, as President Harry Truman put it more graphically, his most important task as president was to convince “some damned fool” to do what they should have had the common sense to do in the first place.

More than two millennia earlier, the Greek philosopher Plato also wrestled with the notion of leadership. He argued for rule by a philosopher king and a council of greybeard advisers, although he seems to have stumbled on identifying a reliable way to discern wise policies from unwise ones. Beyond those who argued that such choices should naturally follow the class interests of workers versus those of the rich and powerful, there were those like the British thinker Jeremy Bentham who argued the right/best policies were those that provided the greatest benefit to the greatest number. 

This knotty problem still tantalises present-day politicians, with the general run of democratic theory arguing the best policies will evolve painfully but ultimately out of the clash of ideas and interests from among an engaged citizenry through its elected representatives.  

Other thinkers have tried to define the core of leadership, such as the Renaissance diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, effectively the founder of the school of “realpolitik” thinking. After a lifetime of diplomatic work and advising rulers in Italian city-states (and even a stint of incarceration), he reached the conclusion leaders must choose between being feared or loved by the inhabitants of their realms. His money was firmly on the former alternative. Collectively, these ideas live on in how leaders behave in public office, unless, perhaps, they are on top in an authoritarian tyranny like North Korea where opponents can find themselves fired from a cannon.

How to hold on to power

Broadly speaking, all these concepts speak to how someone already in office who attempts to carry out a programme of policies should comport themselves for maximum success. But what about someone trying to gain power — or trying to hold on to it in the face of opposition once they have gained it? This is different from how they can most effectively advance their policy agenda. Perhaps novels and dramas have as much to offer on this question as do political scientists.

One of my literary touchstones has always been Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a novel about a poor man in the American South who is striving for the governorship of his state and uses money and sexual attraction as stepping stones to greater power (and vice versa). Most importantly, he builds upon a sense of grievance among the non-elite in his state to gain the votes to come to power. He overreaches and, at the height of his power, has his downfall when one of the state’s old elite assassinates him. 

Or, perhaps, we could look to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Richard III, Julius Caesar or Coriolanus for insights about how not to go about gaining power, and then, ultimately, how to face one’s downfall.

How to gain power in the first place — two opposing models

But what about the struggle to gain power in the first place? Here we can define two very different ideas — the servant-leader versus the man on horseback — that bear on the behaviour of three men regarding political power, namely Donald Trump, Jacob Zuma and Benjamin Netanyahu, among so many others. 

The servant-leader comes to power offering a better future in the face of deep national adversity. That offer says hope and inspiration can improve things despite the present. However, to achieve that, a people must pull together, despite the obstacles.

Fortunately, in many democracies over time, such leaders have come to power. They have used their inner strength to inspire amid existential crises. They find ways to elicit from citizens the support to confront seemingly insurmountable challenges. 

Obvious examples that come to mind are presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. We should also add the first post-war West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, President Charles de Gaulle for a France still in shock after its withdrawal from Indochina and poised to leave Algeria, and Shigeru Yoshida, the Japanese prime minister who brought a shattered nation to rebuild itself after World War 2. Such leaders were not perfect. They made mistakes, they had blind spots, but we remember them for saving or resurrecting their nations.

The man on horseback

Now compare this version of leadership to the archetype of the man on horseback. Besides Shakespearean examples or the caudillos of various Latin American nations such as Juan Peron, Italy’s Benito Mussolini is the best modern exemplar.

Riding on a wave of popular resentment, anger over economic malaise, and irredentist feelings that Italy had been cheated at the negotiating table after World War 1, as well as drawing on a well of populist feelings about the corruption and lassitude of the Italian state, Mussolini’s style of populist bombast set the pattern for much of what followed. He seized power in 1922 as a result of his March on Rome and held it for two decades.

No doubt, clever readers can see where we are going with this. Beyond everything else about national feelings, the man-on-horseback-style political leader strives to merge his sense of grievance with the resentment of citizens who see themselves being left behind, left out or looked down upon.

He channels what his supporters grasp as an organic connection that supersedes mere words — which fits the way Trump’s and Zuma’s rallies connect with their followers. Such leaders aim to become the embodiment of their supporters in confronting their fears. They aim to become the vessel for supporters’ thoughts of revenge against those who ignore, betray or belittle them. 

In those cases, these contemporary men on their metaphorical horses decry their legal agonies as nothing more than efforts by political enemies to distract their supporters. Their enemies’ goal is to keep them from (or from holding on to, in the case of Netanyahu who is also facing corruption charges) their God-given roles as national leaders and their inevitable return to the top.

The Tao of Trump and Zuma

As Thomas Edsall put it recently in The New York Times, “Trump has made retribution a central theme of his campaign, seeking to intertwine his legal defense with a call for payback against perceived slights and offenses to ‘forgotten’ Americans.”

Going forward, starting with the trial that has just opened in New York City over fraudulent financial record-keeping to conceal a hush money payment to the adult film star Stormy Daniels that could have adversely affected his first run for president, Trump will be using the trials he faces as proof positive of his persecution. He will portray himself as something like the legendary figure of Prometheus, bound to a rock (his first trial) while a huge bird (the weaponised justice system/the media/the deep state/Democrats) tortures him, when, instead, he should be free to campaign for his triumphant return to oust the imposter, Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, in the local version, The Citizen reported that as he addressed “his supporters outside the court, Zuma criticised the judiciary for allegedly showing preferential treatment to Ramaphosa, who previously obtained an interim interdict to block the summons for him to appear in court. ‘We come to court all the time, but the president has never been in court. This shows South Africa is not the South Africa we fought for. 

“ ‘The judges want us here day or night, but they fear a person of this country who should be following the law and should be an example of upholding the law. Mr Ramaphosa doesn’t respect the law because he doesn’t come to court even though he has got a case against him. He is the only prisoner that doesn’t come to jail or court, but, us, we are forced.’ ”

The paper added, “Zuma said he had decided to ‘take back the nation into our hands’ by creating the uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party to save the nation. ‘This leader is a problem. Since he took over, we have had problems. We had fixed the electricity problem, but we are now under constant load shedding.’… Zuma on Monday told his supporters that he had ‘unfinished business’ as he never completed his term as president.”

Sunday World added that Zuma said, “‘A person who steals money and hides it under a mattress is allowed to contest, but I am prevented from doing so.”

Sunday World continued, “He further pledged to root out corruption and promote equality, both within the government and within his party, and condemned power-hungry individuals who prioritise their interests over those of the people.”

Exchange the names of Trump for Zuma and you might barely notice the difference.

Central for such politicians is their insistence on using the “Stalingrad defence” — making use of every conceivable wrinkle in the legal system to ward off a judicial day of reckoning through appeals processes, procedural motions and countersuits. 

Such efforts are expensive, however. We know significant details of how Trump has been funding his legal actions — such as fundraising efforts ostensibly designed to support his presidential ambitions but which significantly divert funds to cover legal expenses.

We know less about the shadowy funding processes underwriting Jacob Zuma’s decade of legal moves, once those bills were no longer paid from government funds while he was in office. But someone must be doing so — top-tier advocates and attorneys do not work for free. 

One thing we can be certain of is that in these cases, the money to pay all those lawyers is not coming from any personal piggy banks. Moreover, the impetus of all of this legal activity and the deliberate blending together of the personal and the public and the consequent fundraising is dedicated to keeping such individuals out of legal jeopardy and in office — or poised for a triumphal return to office.

The path has been set for the merging of populist urges, a culture of grievance and a belief in political aggrandisement into a fertile soil to nurture populist politicians and their ambitions. Add the enthusiasm of significant parts of the media to report on whatever such politicians say or do, no matter how egregious, and the way is clear for politics to become ever more like reality television and the most salacious forms of social media. Think of the OJ Simpson trial on steroids as the wave of the future for politics. Not pretty. DM


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