My friend Thingy objected to applying the word “charisma” to Trump, saying:
“I want to use another word for him other than charisma, because it doesn’t seem the right one for me. I always thought charisma was a positive trait, someone people turn to and smile.”
She’s not alone. Several people to whom I’ve told my theory disagree that Trump has charisma.
So, first, I should define what I mean by “charisma”. I’m using Max Weber’s definition:
“[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader […] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.”
Interestingly, Weber defined charisma as something that originated more with the followers rather than the leader. As the Wikipedia article puts it:
“In contrast to the current popular use of the term charismatic leader, Weber saw charismatic authority not so much as character traits of the charismatic leader but as a relationship between the leader and his followers. The validity of charism is founded on its “recognition” by the leader’s followers.”
That’s my first reason for arguing that Trump has charisma: he’s able to inspire devotion from his followers independent of any specific thing he says or does, but simply by being him.
Now it’s true that Trump’s appeal is definitely not even close to universal. Many people find the mere sight of him repulsive. That argues against the idea that he has charisma. At the very least, shouldn’t people not be repulsed by him if he’s so charismatic?
I’ll admit: part of the reason I say he’s charismatic is that otherwise, it’s hard to see what enabled him to beat not only Clinton, but also all the other Republican primary contenders.
His policies were (and are) vague and change depending on the day, he had no political experience, he had a bad temper, and he had scandals like the Trump University case hanging over him. And all that was before the Access Hollywood tape.
He wasn’t even the most extreme conservative in the primary–that was Senator Ted Cruz. So it’s not even possible to argue that his ideological purity was what got him through.
You might argue, as Thingy does, that Trump’s appeal to racist and ethno-nationalist elements was what propelled him to victory, rather than charisma.
This is very plausible. After all, we know that racist and nationalist groups did endorse Trump. So maybe that was the key to his success.
My counter-argument is that Trump isn’t the first politician to appeal to such sentiments. In the 1990s, Patrick J. Buchanan famously ran on a nationalist platform that attracted the support of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other such groups. Buchanan had a strong-ish primary showing, but never got close to the Republican nomination; let alone the Presidency.
(Ironic historical trivia note: Buchanan ran for and ultimately got the nomination of the Reform Party in 2000. During the Reform party primary, Buchanan was labelled a “Hitler lover” by one of his rival Reform party candidates…. Donald Trump.)
Buchanan was a veteran political operative who had previously worked for Richard Nixon. And his nationalist message in the 1990s was very similar to Trump’s message in 2016. The major differences were that Buchanan’s policies were more detailed, and his speeches were much better-written than Trump’s.
Yet Buchanan never had the kind of electoral success that Trump did. Why not?
One possible explanation is luck. Maybe Buchanan had stronger primary opponents; or maybe the increase in sheer number of primary opponents worked in Trump’s favor.
Let’s say that hypothesis is correct and that Trump just got lucky and drew a better hand than Buchanan did in the primaries. It was still a one-on-one contest in the general election.
“Well, that’s easy to explain,” you say. “Trump lost the popular vote! He only won the election due to a convoluted set of rules about apportionment of Congressional seats being equal to the number of Electors. He won on a technicality.”
True, but even so, it’s kind of amazing that he could even get close enough to be able to win the Electoral College. This is why I resort the charisma theory–because it’s the only thing that explains how he was able to win both the general election and the primaries. Plus, charisma has a strong historical track record that makes it very compelling as an explanation for an election outcome.
All that said, there are other terms that you could use besides “charisma”. “Showmanship” is one that some people have suggested to me. “The gift of the Blarney”, as they say in The Music Man, is what I always think of.
Actually, The Music Man isn’t a bad analogue for Trump. It’s about a con man who gets money by convincing people the youth are being corrupted, and they need to pay him to organize a band to keep them from going bad.
The concept of someone whipping people into a frenzy and profiting off of it is nothing new–this being perhaps the most remarkable example:
This is the thing about Trump (Donald, I mean; not the guy on Trackdown.): He so clearly fits this specific stock-character mold that I think at some level, it became part of his appeal. People like to see a larger-than-life character like that, even when they sort of know he’s lying to them.
Trump may have started out as a property developer, but his real skill lies in entertainment and promotion. He learned some things from his time as a TV star, and he knows how to put on an entertaining show for his audiences.
Call it charisma, call it showmanship–call it a cult of personality. Ultimately, Trump’s one notable talent is his ability to make the crowd look at him.