What does a loose-lipped congressional candidate in Buffalo have in common with some witnesses in the January 6, 2021 insurrection hearings?

They believe people want to follow strong political leaders.

Carl Paladino, who is seeking the Republican nomination for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, recently said that Adolf Hitler was “the kind of leader we need today.” He continued, “We need somebody inspirational. We need somebody that is a doer.”

While Paladino did not mention just what that particular “doer” did, he liked the way the Nazi Fuhrer “aroused the crowd.”  The despicable substance of his arousing speeches meant nothing compared the way he got people to follow him. (Forget the Gestapo.)

During the House January 6 hearings, one participant said that he was at the Capitol because former President Trump asked him to be there. Why he would readily do Trump’s bidding?

It is easy for some in the media to assume that Trump simply brought the racists out of the closet. That may be true but it’s far from the whole answer.


Paladino implied that people respond to bold, assertive, self-confident leadership for its own sake. It may not matter where the speakers want to lead people, just that they appear to take charge. Maybe that explains why the man went to Washington to attack the Capitol.

That may also explain why President Biden has become less popular than Trump was at the same point in his presidency. Biden is affable, but not a crowd-pleasing orator who can express his policies in simple slogans.

One of the marks of leadership is the ability to directly motivate others. Leadership is a learned skill, so it’s not surprising that 12 of our 46 presidents had previously served as generals. Among the most historic were professionals like Washington, Jackson, Grant and Eisenhower. Others in lower ranks, like Truman and Kennedy, had led in combat.

The U.S. was created as a republic, a representative democracy where leadership matters rather than a direct democracy where the people rule. It’s the difference between the representative town council and the direct democratic decision-making of the town meeting.

In either case, the people are the sovereign, not a monarch or a dictator. As the U.S. evolved, its original republican institutions became more democratic. That is evidenced by adopting the popular election of the Senate, referendums, people’s vetoes and recall elections.

American presidents, including those with military experience, have supported democracy, even if the system blocked some of their policies. Undoubtedly one-person government might be more efficient than the intentionally more complicated and slower-moving democratic system.


Autocratic leaders often argue that the democratic system is ineffective and seek authoritarian rule. Hitler took power through a democratic vote and then promptly replaced popular control with his brutally efficient regime.

If a person values efficiency above democracy, the strong, unchecked leader is popular. That’s especially true if you agree with their policies. The risk is that they will later adopt policies you dislike and you will be helpless to oppose them. What’s tempting today may be terrifying tomorrow.

Today American politics are carried out through the Republican and Democratic parties. Though their names might imply a difference in how the country should be governed, the two major parties have historically shared a common view of how this democratic republic would operate.

But a divide has begun to emerge between them with some Republicans believing that their party should reverse the trend toward greater democracy. Voter suppression and misusing Senate voting practices have become part of the GOP agenda.

Republicans have easily slid into calling the other party the “Democrat Party” and not by its legal name – the Democratic Party. Originally, this ploy was meant only to annoy, but increasingly it has become a slur, conveying something sinister about the party.

Republicans may imply that its competitor is no longer democratic but has fallen into the hands of its extreme left wing. The Democratic Party has traditionally had a bigger tent than the GOP and that produces enough of a variety that there’s always an office holder whose patriotism can be questioned by a Republican.


Does that kind of politics go so far as to question whether representative democracy has outlived its usefulness or proven unable to meet modern needs? Elitist republic yes, popular democracy no?

This is more than a political word game played by some in the GOP. Favoring “inspirational” leaders tends to undermine our innovative system of democratic government and pave the way to more authoritarian rule. Perhaps that’s what’s intended.

We need to understand that political division is now more than a disagreement on issues. It’s about the system itself. Paladino’s views and fostering the follow-the-leader mentality of the January 6 Capitol invaders are dangerous to the American democratic republic.

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.

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