The strong leader fallacy


Nov. 9, 1799: France has been in state of bitter turmoil following the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. It is plagued by foreign wars and threats from abroad. But a strong leader sweeps in — a gallant figure on horseback who inspires his men — whose bravery is beyond question and whose resolve never wavers. Surely he can restore order.

And restore order, he did. Then he plunged all of Europe into ever more wars. And, of course, crowned himself emperor in 1804, after winning approval from both the French Senate and the French people, getting over 99 percent of the vote in a national referendum.

Napoleon Bonaparte was indeed a strong figure. And, like Roman leader Julius Caesar before him, he represented safety to many.

Throughout history, we've often fallen for this trick: We seek out strong-willed leaders in hopes that they will keep us safe. We mistake their narcissism for righteousness. We attribute their flaws to some greater genius and dismiss their cruel natures in hopes that they will bring us glory.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini took advantage of this, of course, and Adolf Hitler followed his path. Both took power in democratic societies, promising to restore glory — or, perhaps, to make their countries "great again." Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, though not democratically elected, always made certain to portray himself as strong and steady, as did Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. They too emphasized the "greatness" that had been stolen from their nations by interlopers.

In today's world, we see this trait in the figure of Russian President Vladimir Putin. His popularity rests on his image of strength, and while it's true that it's difficult to gauge the Russian opposition since Putin controls the media and his political enemies have a habit of turning up dead, it's clear that he does have a real base of supporters who admire him because they view him as a strong leader.

The U.S. is not immune to this phenomenon. President Andrew Jackson, who was possibly insane, was considered "strong." His "strength" led not only to the further subjugation of the American Indian, but also to an economic depression when he — strongly — shut down the nation's bank. President George W. Bush was the strong "decider" who led us into a disastrous, misguided war. And let's not forget Richard Nixon, who made his name as a "strong" anti-communist and someone who was going to achieve "peace with honor" in Vietnam.

In chaotic or challenging times, the public is often all too ready to support cruel, xenophobic or downright stupid leaders (I'm looking at you, President Warren G. Harding) whom they perceive as strong. As President Bill ClintonBill ClintonThe Hill's 12:30 Report Mosul and Aleppo are trees in larger forest of Shia-Sunni conflict Making peace with the idea of voting for Clinton MORE once put it, "When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody that's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right."

We've watched the Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPence likens ObamaCare to Samsung phones that catch on fire The Hill's 12:30 Report 'Yuge' challenges on many fronts await Trump TV MORE (R) show for almost a year now. Throughout that time, we've seen him call for a ban on all Muslims entering the country, invent stories to exaggerate his own success, claim that Mexico is purposely sending us rapists, encourage violence at his events and make blatantly misogynistic statements, the latest of which was about his GOP opponent's wife.

And still his supporters do not abandon him. Why? Because he has convinced them that cruelty and petulance are somehow signs of strength. He's filled them with irrational fears and sold them on the notion that only he can rescue us all. He said as much in a recent tweet, when, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), he wrote, "I alone can fix this problem!"

It's like an arsonist explaining why he's the best person to protect us from fire. And while Trump's actions haven't risen to the level of a Hitler or Mussolini, that doesn't mean he's not extremely dangerous. After all, cowards who like to project strength are often the most dangerous people, for they'll often stop at nothing to safeguard their egos.

And if it's between Donald Trump's ego and the good of the country, the country will have to get in the backseat.

Rosenfeld is an educator and historian who has done work for Scribner, Macmillan and Newsweek.