... [a] masterful account of charisma in modern history ... Though Donald Trump is never mentioned, our nation’s very own 'He Who Must Not Be Named' casts a malign shadow over almost every page. In his lucid and bracing history, Bell helps us better understand how this charismatic grifter came to occupy the most powerful office in the world ... Though progressive and liberal movements are rightly repelled by the charismatic power Donald Trump wields, Bell warns that we cannot dispense with that power but must rather make use of it. While his prescription—namely, that we must choose our charismatic leaders with care—is not as reassuring as we might like, Bell’s description of our predicament makes for essential reading.
One of Bell’s insights is to see the man on horseback as a genre. His engaging survey of the four major early-modern revolutions traces the way their messianic leaders learned from and imitated one another, as did the chroniclers who gilded their names ... he advocates for the cultural study of leadership, of the way that shifts in technology, religious belief, and literary taste shape the exercise of personality-driven power.
... insightful ... Much of Men on Horseback’s appeal lies in its wonderful cast of characters ... Charisma, as Bell reminds us, is relational: it is both about the heroic qualities of individuals, and the myriad ways in which these are assimilated and celebrated by their admirers. Men on Horseback offers fascinating glimpses of this dialectic at work ... Bell’s attention to the literary aspects of the charismatic leaders’ legends highlights the significance of a particular genre of heroic narrative, celebrating the extraordinary virtues of Great Men ... Men on Horseback is somewhat more elusive when it comes to the more ethnographic sources of the different leaders’ charisma ... Men on Horseback asserts from the outset that the relationship between charismatic leadership and democracy is 'symbiotic,' and that modern democratic charisma acquired its essential features between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Yet by the end of the book Bell seems less certain, stressing that this period did not witness the emergence of stable democratic institutions, and that the term itself was mostly deployed pejoratively rather than positively.