🔮 Myth: All populist leaders are 'charismatic'

Adrian Favero explores the claim that populist leaders are generally charismatic and invaluable for the functioning of 'their' parties. 'Charismatic leadership', he says, is not well conceptualised, nor are leaders unreservedly seen as charismatic by their followers, despite being helpful for populist parties’ success

In their opening article for this blog series, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti challenge three longstanding myths about populism. Continuing this line of investigation, I address a myth related to populism and described as a micro-organisational factor within parties – the charisma of populist leaders.

Conceptualisation of charismatic leadership

In the past, political and military leaders were repeatedly described as charismatic, as were the caudillos in 19th century Latin America. Today, we often associate charisma with populist leaders. On the right, we have Silvio Berlusconi from Forza Italia, Marine Le Pen from the French Rassemblement Nationale, and former Republican US president Donald Trump. Similarly, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Brazil’s current president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) on the left have also earned this 'charismatic' label.

Many studies on charismatic leadership refer to Max Weber’s theory, which asserts that leaders are not intrinsically charismatic. Instead, followers recognise the leader’s extraordinary personal attributes and invest them with charismatic authority. But this is precisely the point where conceptualisations of charisma become complicated.

In the past, political and military leaders were repeatedly described as charismatic. Today, we often associate charisma with populist leaders

We sometimes equate charisma with personal characteristics such as self-confidence or assertiveness. Roger Eatwell, for instance, mentions behavioural aspects when examining former fascist leaders in Europe. Such aspects include an idealistic missionary vision, a symbiotic hierarchy with followers combined with self-presentation as 'ordinary people,' and the demonisation of internal and external enemies. Some argue that charisma is more about the rhetorical skills and the leaders’ style and capacity to inspire the people. Conversely, charismatic leadership has also been described as part of a disruptive performance, combining political incorrectness, discrimination, and charisma.

This plethora of assumed attributes shows that scholars largely agree on the nature of charismatic appeal. It is, by most definitions, followers’ validation of a leader's qualities. However, scholars disagree on the actual qualities that make a leader appealing and that create a charismatic bond with their followers.

Charismatic leaders and their followers

Do populist parties require the presence of a charismatic leader? Alluding to Weber’s understanding of charisma, some scholars describe this presence as an element that ignites followers’ commitment and loyalty. Eatwell further distinguished between types of charisma. The first of these is coterie charisma, the leader’s appeal to the inner core of followers. Then there is centripetal charisma, or attracting broad support from the masses. Finally, there is cultic charisma, the creation of an almost religious aura around the leader.

In contrast, some scholars identify the charismatic leader as an element that facilitates rather than defines populism and its success. These scholars believe that other aspects, such as the centralisation of power to maintain political authority, matter more. Taking a follower perspective, some studies find that populism makes people want charisma in their leaders. However, populism does not necessarily establish an emotional bond with specific leaders. Similarly, Takis Pappas argues that we should not treat a leader’s charisma as an essential aspect of populism, but should acknowledge that it still helps populist parties to be electorally successful.

The charismatic bond is not stable, and not essential to the populist phenomenon

What these studies show is the nuanced nature of charismatic leadership in the direct interaction with followers and as an element for populist parties' success. The charismatic bond is not stable. We need to be cautious in carefully analysing charismatic leadership as the product of populist leaders, their followers, and the circumstances.

Founding figures vs charismatic takeovers

Another important aspect in the analysis of charismatic leadership is party organisation. Some leaders founded their party, and are therefore synonymous with its very existence. This group includes Umberto Bossi and Matteo Salvini (Lega Nord), Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom), and, to a certain extent, Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli d'Italia).

Others have effectively taken over and radicalised an existing party. Some of these include Frauke Petry of Alternative für Deutschland, Christoph Blocher of the Swiss People's Party, and Jörg Haider of the Freedom Party of Austria.

Charismatic founding figures may embody the party, but also hinder its institutionalisation

The difference between the former ‘personal’ (or ‘charismatic’) parties and the latter ‘personalised’ parties affects the charismatic authority these leaders have. Voters are more likely to regard a founding figure as charismatic because they embody the party. However, this position may also prevent further party institutionalisation. Charismatic leaders are often described as a hindrance because this process requires depersonalisation.

Party structure matters

Some studies go a step further, arguing that institutionalisation of such parties is possible. However, these parties remain vulnerable if they cannot routinise the party leader's charisma. In my study on charismatic leadership in the radicalised Swiss People’s Party, I found that Blocher lost strength and authority over time. The populist party structure he built, meanwhile, remains strong. However, the party has still not fully decoupled from Blocher. It is currently in a situation where it walks a fine line between personalisation and depersonalisation, and between seeing the leader simultaneously as an asset and a liability.

In short, charismatic leadership in populist parties is a contested concept. The usefulness of this concept has been the subject of much debate. Nevertheless, charismatic leaders do influence 'their' parties in one way or another – positively and negatively. They will continue to be the perceptible heads of their parties. It is therefore essential to understand the charismatic relationship between them and their followers, while also being conceptually accurate when labelling populist leaders charismatic.

28th in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the ðŸ”® to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Adrian Favero
Adrian Favero
Assistant Professor in European Politics & Society, University of Groningen

Adrian gained his PhD in Politics from the University of Edinburgh in 2018.

He investigates how different social groups engage with the political realities within the European Union.

His research focuses on attitudes towards the EU, intra-EU migration in post-communist settings, and party organisations and right-wing populism within and across European states.

He is also interested in comparative research and mixed methods approaches.

Adrian's research has been published in, among others, the Journal of Contemporary European Studies, the Journal of Common Market Studies, European Political Science Review, and East European Politics.

He tweets @Adrian_Favero

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