Italian dictator and one of the founders of fascism, Benito Mussolini was greatly admired by millions of his country’s people. He ruled Italy from 1922 till 1945. He used to receive over 1,500 letters daily from adherents, many of whom venerated him as a demigod. Mussolini was a classic demagogue. He cleverly played on the fears of the people and posed as the man who had the will and power to remove these fears. He gave these fears form and shape, claiming that he had pulled them out from the shadows to be identified and vanquished.
The question many political scientists have often asked is, are demagogues self-made or are they the creation of the people? Certain economic and political conditions create demagogues. These conditions combine to shape the nature and tone of discourse in a country. In her book Demagoguery and Democracy, Professor Emeritus Patricia Roberts-Miller writes that, “If the nature of the discourse has become angry and polarising, it is only a matter of time that a demagogue would appear.”
Demagogues do not create the conditions that shape the discourse. They simply adopt the nature of the discourse, and enhance its polarising characteristics by choosing a side. They then present themselves as that side’s leader, demonising all those on the opposite side. Demagogues do not emerge to bridge differences. They thrive on polarisation. They offer simple, binary answers to complex issues, and promise Utopias in which, of course, only their side would be allowed to exist, and those on the other side will be vanquished. The more they divide, the more powerful and secure they feel.
Demagogues appear in various shapes. They could be totalitarian, authoritarian or even elected. But their fall can be as dramatic as their rise. Particularly when the wrath that they unleash against those they see as enemies, boomerangs – and returns to haunt and then hunt them.
In 1945, after finding himself on the losing side of World War II, Mussolini hatched a plan to escape to Switzerland. The plan was botched by a group of anti-fascists, who executed him, along with his mistress and 15 members of his last cabinet.
Demagogues do not emerge to bridge differences. They thrive on polarisation. They offer simple, binary answers to complex issues, and promise Utopias in which only their side would be allowed to exist, and those on the other side will be vanquished. The more they divide, the more powerful and secure they feel
Their bodies were then strung upside down in a street in Milan. People in Milan tossed out Mussolini’s portraits and pictures from their homes, and set them on fire. They destroyed his statues and then further mutilated his corpse. According to the British historian late Christopher Duggan, a majority of the people who came out of their homes and shops to disfigure Mussolini were largely the dictator’s former admirers. In the past, they had been energised by his demagogic demeanour and clung to his every word and promise. Years later, the same demagogic energy rebounded and disfigured its creator. A few days later, another demagogue, Adolf Hitler killed himself. His body was hurriedly buried at a secret site. There is every likelihood his corpse, too, would have faced the same wrath from former lovers.
There have been other demagogues who met similar fates: Saddam and Gaddafi, for example. But they were not killed by former lovers. The two dictators were detested by most. And it was the haters who brutally killed one dictator, while the other one was pulled out, tried and executed. The fate of Bangladesh’s founder, Sheikh Mujeeb, is much closer to that of Mussolini. Revered by Bengalis when Bangladesh was East Pakistan, Mujib was the face of a movement that turned militant and defeated a military regime centred in West Pakistan. Mujeeb was hailed as the father of the Bengali nation, and treated as a demigod of sorts. Two years after the creation of Bangladesh, he swept to victory in an election and became prime minister.
It didn’t take him long in trying to turn the new country into a one-party state. Corruption soured, and the economy began to buckle. But Mujeeb’s ego, inflated by sycophants, and the manner in which he was put on the pedestal, secluded him from the realities that began to negatively impact the polity. Mujeeb had capitalised on the loathing that the Bengalis of East Pakistan had developed for West Pakistan’s ruling elites, especially the Punjabis. But in Bangladesh, the Punjabi elites were no more. The Bengali nationalists themselves became an elite. This elite fell with a vengeance upon non-Bengali-speaking Bangladeshis, such as the Biharis.
However, as the economy continued to crumble, and whispers of widespread corruption and abuse of power by the government became louder, the Mujib regime intensified another divide: one between those who had fought for liberation from inside the erstwhile East Pakistan, and those who had done the same but were once stationed in West Pakistan. The latter became ‘the other.’
Bengalis who were stationed in West Pakistan, mainly as military officers, government officials and blue-collared workers, had quit their jobs and followed Mujib’s lead. They were equally active in the civil war against West Pakistan. But Mujib began to see them with suspicion. The impact of this was mostly felt among junior officers in the military. Mujib had invested more in a militia that operated as his party’s militant wing than he did on the Bangladeshi army. The military and the police were largely made up of former fighters of the guerrilla group, the Mukti Bahini, that had led the liberation movement from the front.
After the creation of Bangladesh, former members of the Mukti Bahini became were aggravated by the manner in which Mujib had formed his own militia. In 1975, a group of junior military officers, most of who had once blindly followed Mujib during the civil war, barged into his house and brutally murdered him and many members of his family. One of the conspirators was the 29-year-old Shariful Haq Dalim. Dalim had joined the Pakistan Army in 1966. But he left his post and joined the Mukti Bahni when civil war broke out in East Pakistan.
In his book Untold Facts, Dalim describes in detail how officers and Bengalis like him were humiliated, as if they were fake Bengalis. Once the ploy of abusing the Biharis as the ‘other’ was exhausted, the Bengalis who had been in West Pakistan became the new ‘other.’ Those who murdered Mujib were these Bengalis. They had taken part in his movement after abandoning their livelihoods and jobs in West Pakistan. They had all idealised him. Five years later, they killed him.
There was no backlash from lovers of Mujib. The economy had collapsed, as had the law-and-order situation. No one felt safe anymore. Instead of building bridges, Mujib kept widening polarisation, especially in his bid to become president for life in a one-party state.
This is not to suggest that all demagogues face violent ends at the hands of their former admirers. Sometimes the end means a life in exile or in obscurity. What a come-down this can be! Sitting on a pedestal, praised and treated as a messiah or demigod, and then suddenly made to tumble down after the ground from beneath one’s feet is cut by the very people who had showered superlative praise and devotion on you.
In the early 1970s, the former Indian PM Indira Gandhi became to be known as “Mother India.” To many, she was a human manifestation of the Hindu goddess Durga. Her party had won a landslide victory in 1971 after Indian forces demolished their Pakistani counterparts in a war. But as her fame grew, the economy did not. The discourse about her became increasingly bitter. Instead of trying to mitigate it in a more democratic manner, she began to demonise those who became critical of her increasingly authoritarian and egoistical style of governance. In 1975, she declared an emergency and threw her opponents in jail, accusing them of treason and anti-state activities.
In 1977, believing that she was still Durga to most Indians, she lifted the emergency and called an election. But Durga’s party suffered a humiliating defeat and she also lost her own seat. From a revered demigod, she became a rejected politician. Many of her staunchest supporters voted against her.
The former British PM Winston Churchill was hugely popular when he led Britain to victory in World War II. His style was anything but demagogic, but Churchill was known for his arrogance. He had been a war-time PM, so his mindset became militaristic. He began to think more like a military general than an elected leader. Churchill was so convinced that he would be swept to power in the post-War election, that he hardly bothered to campaign. Instead, he began to demonise the opposition Labour Party, even though the party had agreed to support him during the war. Churchill warned that the Labour Party harboured dictatorial ambitions. He even compared Labour Party to the Nazis. He completely misread the political discourse in Britain after the war.
According to the German political scientist Klaus W. Larres, Churchill believed that British people would reject Labour Party’s socialism after equating it with Stalinism and Nazism. But it was peace, progress and a return to normality that were at the core of the post-War discourse in Britain. The Labour Party promised these and swept the election. Suddenly, a PM who had won a war and was perhaps the most popular man in Britain, was ousted. His language and tone had become demagogic, which disturbed a nation that was coming out of a devastating war. But the war had been won. Conditions were not suitable for the emergence of a demagogue.
Charismatic leaders are especially attractive during times of crises. But it is also a fact that the crises are not always as grave as portrayed by the leader. Such leaders understand that, to make themselves count, they have to paint a crisis that only they can resolve
Churchill fell into a deep state of depression. Larres wrote that when the British monarch offered Churchill the country’s highest honour, The Order of the Garter, he declined, saying that he couldn’t possibly accept such an honour, because the British voters had given him the “order of the boot!”
The limits of charisma
There is great drama in the whole process: leaders being lifted and put on a pedestal by admiring crowds and then pulled down and shredded by the same people. Such leaders believe they will be loved and adored forever. But they were loved for what they had promised. The promises are very tall indeed. Once it becomes apparent that the promises were mere rhetoric, former admirers of this rhetoric react in three ways: (1) They feel their intelligence was insulted and their emotions, exploited. They want to tear into the leader in any way possible. (2) They feel ashamed that they so unabashedly fell head-over-heels over a charlatan. Not only do they feel disappointed by the leader, but by themselves as well. They are not very vocal about this realisation. They just go quiet. (3) Or, they furiously repress realisations 1 and 2, as if these were not emerging from within but being fed from outside. They want to retain the feelings of excitement and fondness that the rhetoric had originally generated in them. This may cut them off from reality, exactly as the elation and exhilaration of being put on a pedestal had separated their beloved leader from reality.
One can observe all three reactions sweeping across Imran Khan supporters, as it is becoming more than evident that he will not complete his full term. Khan, too, is seething with anger, disappointment, confusion and a sense of betrayal. These emotions are projected towards his erstwhile benefactors, the military establishment, and the opposition. The emotions are also being hurled at those who did not vote for his party – and even at those who did, but now want him out. His regime has been a disaster on numerous fronts. And the charisma that had worked so well for him, now seems be eroding.
Charisma has been a constant across all the leaders discussed here. It’s a curious thing. In the book Denying to the Grave, public health specialist Sara Gorman and her psychiatrist father Jack Gorman write that one of the ways ‘charismatic’ leaders justify the nature of power they wield is by constantly claiming that there is no other alternative. Such leaders aim to create a perception of a crisis when there is none. They then repeatedly claim that they alone are the best choice to resolve the crisis.
Imran Khan has often claimed that the country (and his erstwhile backers in the military establishment) have no other alternative than him (as PM). Khan is known to blurt glaring inaccuracies while sharing his wisdom in various fields. Yet, even though such inaccuracies are quickly ridiculed on the social media, they are uncritically swallowed as ‘facts’ by Khan’s supporters.
What is a ‘charismatic’ leader? The idea of a charismatic leader stems from the works of the German sociologist Max Weber (d. 1920). He coined the phrase “charismatic authority,” or authority that flows from the charisma of a leader. According to Weber, charisma in a person is because of a quality or personality trait “by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men.” Weber explained “charismatic authority” in contrast to “traditional authority” and “rational authority.” Traditional authority flows from established customs, and rational authority through institutions of the state. Charismatic authority flows from the charismatic leader, created by “the cult of personality.”
Having charisma, and/or the ability to instantly charm and persuade a large group of people, is not a negative trait. But many sociologists argue that when charisma is used politically, the outcome is often dark. In an essay for the January 2021 issue of The Third Coast Review, Nancy S. Bishop writes that those not smitten by charismatic leaders often dismiss them for being eccentric and even comical. However, Bishop thinks that charismatic leaders are well aware of their ability to effectively manipulate their audience. The number of people mocking them is always smaller than those who hang on to their every word, no matter how exaggerated, inaccurate or, for that matter, silly.
To many, he is still the dashing man who won the 1992 Cricket World Cup and then got married to a prosperous British woman. If one wants to see the above playing out, they should check the replies to tweets of Khan’s ex-spouse Jemima Goldsmith. Khan’s now disoriented tribe wants her back in his life, so that the fairy tale in their heads continues to play, and is not soiled by that one thing that this tribe detests the most: reality
Charismatic leaders are especially attractive during times of crises. But it is also a fact that the crises are not always as grave as portrayed by the leader. Such leaders understand that, to make themselves count, they have to paint a crisis that only they can resolve. They can create a perception of a crisis when there is none, or change the nature of a crisis according to their political needs.
During the campaigning of the 2013 elections in Pakistan, when terrorism had hit a terrifying peak in the country, Khan chose to put ‘corruption’ at the top of Pakistan’s list of crises. He hardly ever mentioned terrorism in his speeches.
He continued to roll with his corruption mantra even when he lost the 2013 elections to the PML-N. He explained the PML-N government — and not the violent extremists that had slaughtered over 50,000 people — as ‘a grave danger’ to the country (because of its ‘corruption’). This, despite the fact that the economy had begun to actually show signs of a recovery.
If this really were the case, then why were so many people rallying around Khan? In 2017, German researcher Jochen Menges led a study to explore the impact of charismatic leaders on their followers. His findings led to what he called the “awestruck effect.” According to Menges, a lot of people suspend their emotions while listening to charismatic leaders. This hampers their ability of critical thinking. Menges adds that “charisma as a dominant behaviour is successful only when it is matched by submissive behaviour on the part of a leader’s followers.”
An earlier theory in this context is based on the works of German psychologist Sigmund Freud (d.1939). It is often referred to as “transference,” in which a person or group projects an idealised image of a father or mother figure on to a leader. The leader tries to enhance this idealised image of himself. In politics, this is often done by the creation of the cult of personality.
For example, Khan’s photographs of him performing prayers, or working out, or speaking to a group of youth, etc., are floated to substantiate the idealised image of him being a morally correct and physically fit father figure, who can do no wrong.
But the fact is: all that he did do was wrong. And the stories behind the wrongs begin to flood in public when a charismatic leader’s downward slide commences. The harder he tries to arrest the slide, the harder he falls. And the fall can have a rather traumatic impact on many of his supporters. Some may lash out, not as organised group of protesters, but as sporadic, inarticulate social media mobs. In such cases, their target is not only those who are critical of the leader, but also the leader himself. Recently, various PTI leaders have faced loud protests at their own rallies. In fact, in one such rally, a PTI supporter managed to get hold of the microphone to demand that the government should go home.
Some supporters might feel lost. Such supporters had identified Khan as a surrogate father, uncle or elder brother figure. A hero. To many, he is still the dashing man who won the 1992 Cricket World Cup and then got married to a prosperous British woman. If one wants to see the above playing out, they should check the replies to tweets of Khan’s ex-spouse Jemima Goldsmith. Khan’s now disoriented tribe wants her back in his life, so that the fairy tale in their heads continues to play, and is not soiled by that one thing that this tribe detests the most: reality.
Between 2008 and 2015, Pakistan was facing an unprecedented onslaught from extreme Islamist groups. Over 50,000 people had been killed by the militants. Suicide bombers were exploding themselves in markets and even in mosques, almost on a daily basis. Khan recast the fear of extremist violence as something to do with corruption. So instead of extremism, corruption became the fear, at least to his supporters. Khan then offered his growing number of followers punching bags in the shape of Nawaz Sharif, Zardari, etc.
During hajj, when pilgrims throw pebbles at three walls, called jamarāt, or the concrete symbols of Satan, they do so because they expect to be rewarded by the Almighty for this. Khan gave his followers symbols of corruption to be cursed and punched. They did exactly that, but the promised rewards never materialised. The rewards were in the tall promises Khan had made. Now the trajectory of the pebbles and punches is changing course and heading for him.