The Secret History And Strange Future Of Charisma

How our culture, politics and technology became infused with a mysterious social phenomenon that everyone can feel but nobody can explain.

Refael Idan Suissa for Noema Magazine

Joe Zadeh is a contributing writer for Noema based in Newcastle.

In 1929, one of Germany’s national newspapers ran a picture story featuring globally influential people who, the headline proclaimed, “have become legends.” It included the former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and India’s anti-colonialist leader Mahatma Gandhi. Alongside them was a picture of a long-since-forgotten German poet. His name was Stefan George, but to those under his influence he was known as “Master.”

George was 61 years old that year, had no fixed abode and very little was known of his personal life and past. But that didn’t matter to his followers; to them he was something more than human: “a cosmic ego,” “a mind brooding upon its own being.” Against the backdrop of Weimar Germany — traumatized by postwar humiliation and the collapse of faith in traditional political and cultural institutions — George preached an alternate reality through books of poetry. His words swam in oceans of irrationalism: of pagan gods, ancient destinies and a “spiritual empire” he called “Secret Germany” bubbling beneath the surface of normal life. In essence, George dreamed of that terribly persistent political fantasy: a future inspired by the past. He wanted to make Germany great again.

George dazzled Germans on all sides of the political spectrum (although many, with regret, would later distance themselves). Walter Benjamin loitered for hours around the parks of Heidelberg that he knew the poet frequented, hoping to catch sight of him. “I am converting to Stefan George,” wrote a young Bertolt Brecht in his diary. The economist Kurt Singer declared in a letter to the philosopher Martin Buber: “No man today embodies the divine more purely and creatively than George.”

Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of sociology, met Stefan George in 1910 and immediately became curious. He didn’t buy George’s message — he felt he served “other gods” — but was fascinated by the bizarre hold he seemed to have over his followers. At a conference in Frankfurt, he described the “cult” that was growing around him as a “modern religious sect” that was united by what he described as “artistic world feelings.” In June that year, he wrote a letter to one of his students in which he described George as having “the traits of true greatness with others that almost verge on the grotesque,” and rekindled a particularly rare word to capture what he was witnessing: charisma.

At the time, charisma was an obscure religious concept used mostly in the depths of Christian theology. It had featured almost 2,000 years earlier in the New Testament writings of Paul to describe figures like Jesus and Moses who’d been imbued with God’s power or grace. Paul had borrowed it from the Ancient Greek word “charis,” which more generally denoted someone blessed with the gift of grace. Weber thought charisma shouldn’t be restricted to the early days of Christianity, but rather was a concept that explained a far wider social phenomenon, and he would use it more than a thousand times in his writings. He saw charisma echoing throughout culture and politics, past and present, and especially loudly in the life of Stefan George.

“I knew: This man is doing me violence — but I was no longer strong enough. I kissed the hand he offered and with choking voice uttered: ‘Master, what shall I do?’”
— Ernst Glöckner

It certainly helped that George was striking to look at: eerily tall with pale blueish-white skin and a strong, bony face. His sunken eyes held deep blue irises and his hair, a big white mop, was always combed backward. He often dressed in long priest-like frock coats, and not one photo ever shows him smiling. At dimly lit and exclusive readings, he recited his poems in a chant-like style with a deep and commanding voice. He despised the democracy of Weimar Germany, cursed the rationality and soullessness of modernity and blamed capitalism for the destruction of social and private life. Instead, years before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power, he foresaw a violent reckoning that would result in the rise of a messianic “fuhrer” and a “new reich.”

Many were immediately entranced by George, others unnerved. As the Notre Dame historian Robert Norton described in his book “Secret Germany,” Ernst Bertram was left haunted by their meeting — “a werewolf!” he wrote. Bertram’s partner, Ernst Glöckner, on the other hand, described his first encounter with George as “terrible, indescribable, blissful, vile … with many fine shivers of happiness, with as many glances into an infinite abyss.” Reflecting on how he was overcome by George’s force of personality, Glöckner wrote: “I knew: This man is doing me violence — but I was no longer strong enough. I kissed the hand he offered and with choking voice uttered: ‘Master, what shall I do?’”

As German democracy began to crumble under the pressure of rebellions and hyperinflation, George’s prophecy increased in potency. He became a craze among the educated youth, and a select few were chosen to join his inner circle of “disciples.” The George-Kreis or George Circle, as it came to be known, included eminent writers, poets and historians like Friedrich Gundolf, Ernst Kantorowicz, Max Kommerell, Ernst Morwitz and Friedrich Wolters; aristocrats like brothers Berthold, Alexander and Claus von Stauffenberg; and the pharmaceutical tycoon Robert Boehringer. These were some of the country’s most intellectually gifted young men. They were always young men, and attractive too — partly due to George’s misogynistic views, his homosexuality and his valorization of the male-bonding culture of Ancient Greece. 

Between 1916 and 1934, the George Circle published 18 books, many of which became national bestsellers. Most of them were carefully selected historical biographies of Germanic figures like Kaiser Frederick II, Goethe, Nietzsche and Leibniz, as well as others that George believed were part of the same spiritual empire: Shakespeare, Napoleon and Caesar. The books ditched the usual objectivity of historical biographies of the era in favor of scintillating depictions and ideological mythmaking. Their not-so-secret intention was to sculpt the future by peddling a revision of Germany’s history as one in which salvation and meaning were delivered to the people by the actions of heroic individuals.

In 1928, he published his final book of poetry, “Das Neue Reich” (“The New Reich,”) and its vision established him as some kind of oracle for the German far-right. Hitler and Heinrich Himmler pored over George Circle books, and Hermann Göring gave one as a present to Benito Mussolini. At book burnings, George’s work was cited as an example of literature worth holding onto; there was even talk of making him a poet laureate. 

“Their not-so-secret intention was to sculpt the future by peddling a revision of Germany’s history as one in which salvation and meaning were delivered to the people by the actions of heroic individuals.”

Weber had died in 1920, before George truly reached the height of his powers (and before the wave of totalitarian dictatorships that would define much of the century), but he’d already seen enough to fatten his theory of charisma. At times of crisis, confusion and complexity, Weber thought, our faith in traditional and rational institutions collapses and we look for salvation and redemption in the irrational allure of certain individuals. These individuals break from the ordinary and challenge existing norms and values. Followers of charismatic figures come to view them as “extraordinary,” “superhuman” or even “supernatural” and thrust them to positions of power on a passionate wave of emotion. 

In Weber’s mind, this kind of charismatic power wasn’t just evidenced by accounts of history — of religions and societies formed around prophets, saints, shamans, war heroes, revolutionaries and radicals. It was also echoed in the very stories we tell ourselves — in the tales of mythical heroes like Achilles and Cú Chulainn. 

These charismatic explosions were usually short-lived and unstable — “every hour of its existence brings it nearer to this end,” wrote Weber — but the most potent ones could build worlds and leave behind a legacy of new traditions and values that then became enshrined in more traditional structures of power. In essence, Weber believed, all forms of power started and ended with charisma; it drove the volcanic eruptions of social upheaval. In this theory, he felt he’d uncovered “the creative revolutionary force” of history. 

Weber was not the first to think like this. Similar ideas had been floating around at least as far back as the mid-1700s, when the Scottish philosopher David Hume had written that in the battle between reason and passion, the latter would always win. And it murmured in the 1800s in Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man Theory” and in Nietzsche’s idea of the “Übermensch.” But none would have quite the global impact of Weber, whose work on charisma would set it on a trajectory to leap the fence of religious studies and become one of the most overused yet least understood words in the English language.

Come the spring of 1968, the New York Times columnist Russell Baker was declaring that “the big thing in politics these days is charisma, pronounced ‘karizma,’” and that all the Kennedys had it. Since then, charisma has been used to explain everything from Marilyn Monroe to anticolonial uprisings, New Age gurus and corporate CEOs. When the Sunni jihadist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki — whose YouTube videos were linked to numerous terrorist attacks around the world — was executed by drone strike by the Obama administration in 2011, some observers suggested that his main threat had been his “charismatic character.”

Today, a Google Ngram of its usage in American English shows it to be still on a steep upward trend. And not just in American English: Charisma has migrated to Chinese in its Western pronunciation, to Japanese as “karisuma” and to Spanish, French and Italian as “carisma,” “charisme” and “carisma” respectively. The wholesale migration of the word in exact or close to its original form suggests that no equivalent previously existed in those languages to express its magnetic and mysterious quality. On TikTok, charisma has become a viral term; shortened to “rizz” or “unspoken rizz,” it refers to a person’s wordless ability to seduce a love interest with body gestures and facial expressions alone. The hashtag #rizz has over 13 billion views. 

A word survives and thrives because it continues to quench an explanatory thirst; it meets a need or desire. And any word carefully examined will reveal itself to be a wormhole — an ongoing exchange between the past and the present. The prevalence of charisma implies a widespread belief in the power of it, and also in the ability of extraordinary individuals to change history. Weber’s terms still echo: Something magical and dangerous, something unfathomable, is afoot when charisma is present. “The pertinent question,” pondered the cultural theorist John Potts, “is not whether charisma actually exists, but why it exists.”

Most of us will have experienced the allure of a charismatic individual in our lives. Few have experienced the feeling of being charismatic, where your desires, beliefs and actions are having a disproportionately powerful influence on those around you. But when people try to break down how it feels to experience it, they veer into cryptic comparisons. “When she [Elizabeth Holmes] speaks to you, she makes you feel like you are the most important person in her world in that moment,” Tyler Shultz, a whistleblower who worked at Theranos, told CBS News. “She almost has this reality distortion field around her that people can just get sucked into.” 

About a meeting with Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky wrote: “I can not express in words what I felt rather than thought at that moment; in my soul there was joy and fear, and then everything blended in one happy thought: ‘I am not an orphan on the earth, so long as this man lives on it.’” Reflecting on her rare experiences of charisma across 25 years of interviewing notable figures, the newspaper columnist Maggie Alderson wrote: “I still don’t understand what creates the effect. … If not fame, beauty, power, wealth and glory then what? It must be innate. I find that quite thrilling.”

“Something magical and dangerous, something unfathomable, is afoot when charisma is present.”

It certainly seems to be a subjective and circumstantial spell: a “prophet” to some is a “werewolf” to others. Not all young men and boys are drawn toward the “charisma” of the misogynistic influencer Andrew Tate; not all financiers and experts who encountered Holmes and Theranos were convinced to invest in a technology that turned out to not exist. “We tend to think of charisma in a sinister register — a kind of regressive thing, where people are being affirmed in their prejudices,” the University of Chicago anthropologist William Mazzarella explained to me. “Yielding is the problem from this point of view. It’s viewed as submitting to domination, being taken for a ride and not being the master of your own destiny. But then there’s also the sense of yielding as being selfless and participating in something greater than yourself. It’s the thing that allows us to be our most magnificent as human beings.”

As Mazzarella reminded me, people also use charisma to talk about the most admired and inspiring figures in their lives and the charismatic teachers they’ve had. “There the implication is that this person helped me to become myself or transcend myself in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do,” he said. “That’s what’s interesting about charisma: It touches the darkest fundamentals of human impulses while having the capacity to point to our highest potentials. Charisma has these two faces, and it’s the fact that we seem to not be able to have one without the other that is so uncanny and disturbing. Inspiring charismatic figures can become exploitative, manipulative or violent. Violence gives way to liberation, or liberation gives way to violence. The problem is not just that we have a hard time telling the good charisma from the bad charisma, but that one has a way of flipping into the other.”

Weber believed that whether we thought of ourselves as explicitly religious or not, humans had a fundamental need for mysticism. As the modern world was becoming increasingly secular, industrialized and rationalized — in his now famous term, “disenchanted” — and more faith was placed in a demystified scientific worldview rather than in gods or shamans, the irrational and mystical appeal of charismatic power wouldn’t just fade away; we would crave it even more. 

This is perhaps most evident in our political realm, where a longing for charisma prevails, and a lack of it is frequently commented on. In the U.K.’s left-leaning newspaper The Guardian this year, Andy Beckett bemoaned the Labor leader Keir Starmer’s lack of “messianic qualities” — unlike Tony Blair, he wrote, “Starmer can’t use personal charisma.” Meanwhile in America’s conservative magazine National Review, Nate Hochman wrote that while Ron DeSantis might be focused and competent, Donald Trump “beats him in raw charisma.” In fact, wrote the American historian David Bell, “Trump’s base [is] tied to him by one of the most remarkable charismatic relationships in American history.” Last month, Vanity Fair reported a theory that Tucker Carlson’s departure from Fox News was linked to Rupert Murdoch’s distaste for Carlson’s “messianism” and Murdoch’s ex-fiancée’s belief that Carlson was “a messenger from God.”

“I’m convinced that the way we frame political discussions has far more of an impact on politics than we realize,” explained Tom Wright, a cultural historian at the University of Sussex. “If one of the terms of debate is that some people have a gift and others don’t, then that conditions the way we reflect on the political process and the kind of leadership we want, the kind of disruption that’s possible, the kind of people that can and don’t enter politics.” A good example of this was a 2007 campaign slogan for Gordon Brown in the U.K.: “Not flash, just Gordon.” The goal was to communicate that his blatant lack of charisma shouldn’t detract from his trustworthy competence as a political leader. Brown would go on to lose his first and only general election to the charismatic David Cameron.

“That’s what’s interesting about charisma: It touches the darkest fundamentals of human impulses while having the capacity to point to our highest potentials.”
— William Mazzarella

A scientifically sound or generally agreed-upon definition of charisma remains elusive even after all these years of investigation. Across sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, history and theater studies, academics have wrestled with how exactly to explain, refine and apply it, as well as identify where it is located: in the powerful traits of a leader or in the susceptible minds of a follower or perhaps somewhere between the two, like a magnetic field. 

The Cambridge Dictionary reports that charisma is “a special power that some people have naturally,” but this association with individual influence is criticized as just another tedious expression of the Great Man Theory and overlooks much interconnected complexity. In her book, “Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leaders,” Erica Edwards argued that this view has “privileged charismatic leaders, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr., over the arduous, undocumented efforts of ordinary women, men and children to remake their social reality.” This uncritical faith in charisma as a motor of history, she wrote, “ignores its limits as a model for social movements while showing us just how powerful a narrative force it is.”

As Wright explained to me, Weber himself would disagree with the individualized modern understanding of charisma. “He was actually using it in a far more sophisticated way,” he said. “It wasn’t about the power of the individual — it was about the reflection of that power by the audience, about whether they receive it. He saw it as a process of interaction. And he was as fascinated by crowds as he was by individuals.” In Weber’s words: “What is alone important is how the [charismatic] individual is actually regarded by those subject to charismatic authority, by his ‘followers’ or ‘disciples.’ … It is recognition on the part of those subject to authority which is decisive for the validity of charisma.”

Charisma then, like love or beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder: intoxicating love and belief, enacted on a mass scale, during particular historical circumstances. Along these lines, the late American political scientist Cedric Robinson believed charisma to be a “psychosocial force” that symbolized the ultimate power of the people: the expression of the masses being focused into one chosen individual. Such an individual, he argued, is totally subordinate in the relationship: They must enact the will of the people or their charismatic appeal will vanish. “It is, in truth, the charismatic figure who has been selected by social circumstance, psychodynamic peculiarities and tradition, and not his followers by him.”

Charisma, he wrote, “becomes the most pure form of a people’s authority over themselves.” The charismatic leader, for better or worse, could be understood as a mere mirror or a charming marionette — the “collective projection of the charismatic mass, a projection out of its anguish, its myths, its visions, its history and its culture, in short its tradition and its oppression.” The reason they seem to read the minds of their followers is because they are the chosen embodiment of the group mind. In the leader they see themselves. 

As the Dutch socialist Pieter Jelles Troelstra once wrote, “At some point during my speeches, there often came a moment when I wondered who is speaking now, they or myself?” 

“I’d pretty much adamantly say that most of the research done [on charisma] until the last 10 years has been utterly useless,” said John Antonakis, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Lausanne. “It’s just been extremely hypothetical — not really putting our fingers on what it is and then not being able to define it in a way where we can experimentally manipulate the behavior and do real scientific field experiments.” Antonakis isn’t a sociologist, historian or cultural theorist; he’s a psychologist and scholar of leadership with a background in math and statistics. He doesn’t believe charisma is a slippery concept at all. “I focus on what I believe to be the core elements of charisma,” he told me. “How one speaks, what one says and how one says it.”  

For over a decade, Antonakis has been experimenting with ways to break charisma down into its composite parts, therefore making it measurable and teachable. He believes it can be the great leveler in a world obsessed with physical appearance. His resulting definition is that charisma is “values-based, symbolic and emotion-laden leader signaling.” 

Along with a team of researchers, he boiled it all down to 12 “charismatic leadership tactics,” or CLTs for short. The CLTs include nine verbal techniques — like the use of metaphors, anecdotes, contrasts and rhetorical questions — as well as three nonverbal ones like facial expressions and gestures. Anyone trained in these CLTs, he said, can become more “influential, trustworthy and leaderlike in the eyes of others.” He and his team developed an artificial intelligence algorithm, which they trained on almost 100 TED talks, that can identify the charismatic quality of speeches. The algorithm is called “Deep Charisma” but Antonakis calls it his “charismometer.” 

In one experiment, they used the algorithm to show that a higher prevalence of CLTs in a TED talk correlated with higher YouTube views and higher ratings of inspiration reported by test subjects. Charisma, in other words, can equate to internet virality. We shared screens on our Zoom call and he opened up Deep Charisma for me to see. “Think of a famous speech and let’s put it in the machine,” he said. Having just started Malcolm X’s autobiography, I asked him to put in X’s 1964 speech “The Ballot or the Bullet.” 

“Harder to explain is the allure of unconventional individuals who can draw us in against all rationality for a myriad of complex reasons, subconscious desires and historical circumstances.”

“Ah, this is already fantastic,” said Antonakis. “It’s already a metaphor.” He pasted a transcript into Deep Charisma and numbers began to fill the screen. Within a minute, we had a final score: 350. “That’s a very high score,” he told me. “You cannot fool my charismometer.”

Out of interest, I asked him if we could try putting in a speech created by ChatGPT, so he asked it to write one in the style of Winston Churchill. “My fellow citizens,” it began, “we stand here today at a pivotal moment in history.” He pasted the finished speech into Deep Charisma, and it began to analyze. “So now we’re using one artificial network to generate a speech and another one to code it for charisma,” he said. It conjured a calculation. “Oh shit,” he said, “it’s very good.” I asked him to test it again, but this time by asking ChatGPT to just write a “charismatic speech.” I wanted to see if it actually could determine what charisma was rather than simply emulating the style of a known charismatic speaker. A score appeared. “Yeah, this is average,” said Antonakis.

I admired his scientific formulation of charisma and the possibility of democratizing something that was previously thought to be innate and ineffable. But I couldn’t help but feel that to make charisma measurable, he’d had to redefine it, and in that process something integral to the phenomenon had been lost. Deep Charisma can identify the persuasive and uplifting habits of gifted orators and the characteristics of rousing speeches, but perhaps harder to explain is the allure of unconventional individuals who can draw us in against all rationality for a myriad of complex reasons, subconscious desires and historical circumstances.  

I thought about John de Ruiter, the shoemaker from rural Canada who started a religious movement in the 1980s that became a multimillion-dollar spiritual organization with thousands of followers. De Ruiter, who was recently charged with sexually assaulting several women, developed a charisma not through what he said or how he said it, but what he didn’t say: His sermons were just long periods of complete silence, during which he stared at his followers for hours. Or the fact that Trump’s speeches, when read as transcripts, are often rambling and incoherent rather than great works of rhetoric and metaphor. The CLTs don’t seem to touch the deeper mystique. Deep Charisma, Antonakis told me, rated Trump as distinctly average. “He’s not that charismatic,” he said. Millions of Americans, I think, would disagree.

“Human relationships with technology have always been implicitly spiritual.”

The CLTs are adept at pushing human buttons that will make us feel engaged, inspired and impressed. For that reason, it’s no surprise that Antonakis’ work has been picked up by researchers working on artificial intelligence. Last December, a group of computer scientists published a paper titled “Computational Charisma — A Brick by Brick Blueprint for Building Charismatic Artificial Intelligence.” The abstract for the paper begins: “Charisma is considered as one’s ability to attract and potentially influence others. Clearly, there can be considerable interest from an artificial intelligence’s perspective to provide it with such skill,” before concluding with the provocation: “Will tomorrow’s influencers be artificial?” 

Björn Schuller, a professor of artificial intelligence at Imperial College London and the lead author of the paper, told me the most exciting avenue of this research is the voice. “We’re a long way from seeing and accepting visually rendered agents, but we don’t have those issues with the voice anymore,” he said. “We can render a voice from a few seconds of your voice and make a piece of audio that sounds just like you. So if people are just interacting with a voice interface, we’re less worried about the uncanny valley.” The aim is to create a charming and persuasive AI entity you could call up and converse with. “If you have a virtual doctor or mental health therapist, then a charismatic one would probably reach you better,” explained Schuller. “In other words, in human-computer interaction, it gives AI a huge leap forward in terms of acceptance and … I wouldn’t want to say obedience, but …”

Once an AI is perfecting this form of charisma through endless reinforcement and imitation learning, Schuller believes it could become far better at it than humans. “We lose our charisma now and then, because we have our temperament and only so much effort is available,” he said. “But an AI would have no problem controlling expression, tone of voice and linguistics all at the same time. Add that to the fact it’s constantly learning about your likes and dislikes.” 

“At some point,” he concluded, “once the AI has established new approaches and achieved success with it, it might become charismatic in ways that humans haven’t even thought about. We might end up picking up charismatic behavior that has originated from an AI.”

The Eurocentric version of how Weber conceptualized charisma is that he took it from Christianity and transformed it into a theory for understanding Western culture and politics. In truth, it was also founded on numerous non-Western spiritual concepts that he’d discovered via the anthropological works of his day. In one of the less-quoted paragraphs of his 1920 book “The Sociology of Religion,” Weber wrote that his nascent formulation of charisma was inspired by mana (Polynesian), maga (Zoroastrian, and from which we get our word magic) and orenda (Native American). “In this moment,” Wright wrote in a research paper exploring this particular passage, “we see our modern political vocabulary taking shape before our eyes.”

Native American beliefs were of particular interest to Weber. On his only visit to America in 1904, he turned down an invitation from Theodore Roosevelt to visit the White House and headed to the Oklahoma plains in search of what remained of Indigenous communities there. Orenda is an Iroquois term for a spiritual energy that flows through everything in varying degrees of potency. Like charisma, possessors of orenda are said to be able to channel it to exert their will. “A shaman,” wrote the Native American scholar J.N.B. Hewitt, “is one whose orenda is great.” But unlike the Western use of charisma, orenda was said to be accessible to everything, animate and inanimate, from humans to animals and trees to stones. Even the weather could be said to have orenda. “A brewing storm,” wrote Hewitt, is said to be “preparing its orenda.” 

This diffuse element of orenda — the idea that it could be imbued in anything at all — has prefigured a more recent evolution in the Western conceptualization of charisma: that it is more than human. Archaeologists have begun to apply it to the powerful and active social role that certain objects have played throughout history. In environmentalism, Jamie Lorimer of Oxford University has written that charismatic species like lions and elephants “dominate the mediascapes that frame popular sensibilities toward wildlife” and feature “disproportionately in the databases and designations that perform conservation.” 

Compelling explorations of nonhuman charisma have also come from research on modern technology. Human relationships with technology have always been implicitly spiritual. In the 18th century, clockmakers became a metaphor for God and clockwork for the universe. Airplanes were described as “winged gospels.” The original iPhone was heralded, both seriously and mockingly, as “the Jesus phone.” As each new popular technology paints its own vision of a better world, we seek in these objects a sort of redemption, salvation or transcendence. Some deliver miracles, some just appear to, and others fail catastrophically. 

Today, something we view as exciting, terrifying and revolutionary, and have endowed with the ability to know our deepest beliefs, prejudices and desires, is not a populist politician, an internet influencer or a religious leader. It’s an algorithm. 

“The idea that charisma could be imbued in anything at all has prefigured a more recent evolution in the Western conceptualization of charisma: that it is more than human.”

These technologies now have the power to act in the world, to know things and to make things happen. In many instances, their impact is mundane: They arrange news feeds, suggest clothes to buy and calculate credit scores. But as we interact more and more with them on an increasingly intimate level, in the way we would ordinarily with other humans, we develop the capacity to form charismatic bonds. 

It’s now fairly colloquial for someone to remark that they “feel seen” by algorithms and chatbots. In a 2022 study of people who had formed deep and long-term friendships with the AI-powered program Replika, participants reported that they viewed it as “a part of themselves or as a mirror.” On apps like TikTok, more than any other social media platform, the user experience is almost entirely driven by an intimate relationship with the algorithm. Users are fed a stream of videos not from friends or chosen creators, but mostly from accounts they don’t follow and haven’t interacted with. The algorithm wants users to spend more time on the platform, and so through a series of computational procedures, it draws them down a rabbit hole built from mathematical inferences of their passions and desires. 

Like crowds who feel a charismatic leader somehow understands their individual anguish and aspirations, many users of TikTok experience a computational process as akin to mind-reading. People speak of eerie revelations in which the curation of videos in their personal feed has triggered them to reconsider their sexuality (“TikTok’s algorithms knew I was bi before I did. I’m not the only one.”), radicalize their politics (“From transphobia to Ted Kaczynski: How TikTok’s algorithm enables far-right self-radicalization”), or reassess their mental health (“How do I go about bringing this up to my doctor? Because I feel like TikTok says I have ADHD will be laughed at.”)

Users are drawn to the algorithm on an emotional level, wrote Holly Avella, a professor in communication at Rutgers University, not because its gaze is genuinely insightful but because the impression of feeling seen is intoxicating. This, she wrote, works to create “cult-like” beliefs “about algorithms’ access to the unconscious self. … A sort of metaphysical understanding.”  

The inability to understand quite how sophisticated algorithms exert their will on us (largely because such information is intentionally clouded), while nonetheless perceiving their power enables them to become an authority in our lives. As the psychologist Donald McIntosh explained almost half a century ago, “The outstanding quality of charisma is its enormous power, resting on the intensity and strength of the forces which lie unconscious in every human psyche. … The ability to tap these forces lies behind everything that is creative and constructive in human action, but also behind the terrible destructiveness of which humans are capable. … In the social and political realm, there is no power to match that of the leader who is able to evoke and harness the unconscious resources of his followers.”

In an increasingly complex and divided society, in which partisanship has hindered the prospect of cooperation on everything from human rights to the climate crisis, the thirst for a charismatic leader or artificial intelligence that can move the masses in one direction is as seductive as it has ever been. But whether such a charismatic phenomenon would lead to good or bad, liberation or violence, salvation or destruction, is a conundrum that remains at the core of this two-faced phenomenon. “The false Messiah is as old as the hope for the true Messiah,” wrote Franz Rosenzweig. “He is the changing form of this changeless hope.”

By 1933, Hitler had risen to power and the violent and bloody cataclysm Stefan George had beckoned was alive on the streets. His dream of a Secret Germany that would rise to the surface and destroy the old order was afoot. And yet he stayed remarkably quiet and ambiguous. He took a long vacation to Switzerland, which some described as voluntary exile, and died there without ever explicitly revealing whether or not he supported the Nazi Party. At his funeral, younger followers were seen giving salutes, much to the horror of his Jewish followers. Walter Benjamin, now a critic of George, had fled to the Spanish island of Ibiza, from where he wrote in a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem: “[I]f ever God has punished a prophet by fulfilling his prophecy, then that is the case with George.”

The German army officer Claus von Stauffenberg was one of the many devoted George disciples who eventually joined the Nazi movement, and he took part in the invasion of Poland in 1939. But as he became aware of the atrocities being committed, he chose to join the German Resistance in an attempt to close the Pandora’s box that the George Circle had helped to open. 

On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg walked into a briefing meeting attended by Hitler, shook him by the hand, placed a briefcase (filled with explosives) under the solid oak conference table, and then left the room to take a call. When the bomb exploded, it killed three officers and a stenographer, but Hitler survived, having been shielded from the blast by one of the table legs. 

Just after midnight that night, Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were lined up against a wall, illuminated by the glaring headlights of a truck, and assassinated by firing squad. Before he was shot, he shouted his last words. “Es lebe das heilige Deutschland!” (“Long live our sacred Germany!”) is typically what historians think he said. But some witnesses disagree, having heard “Es lebe unser geheimes Deutschland!” (“Long live our secret Germany!”)