“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”–Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech. July 21, 2016
The Democrats, including President Obama himself, went after Trump for this quote at their convention. In her acceptance speech, Clinton retorted that Americans fix things by working together.
It made me think of the philosopher Thomas Carlyle and the “Great Man Theory of History“. Carlyle stated that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”.
This theory was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After that, it fell out of favor, with most philosophers and historians preferring theories that emphasized societies and cultures as a whole. What Carlyle would call “Great Men” were products of their times and places. Often, they just happen to be overseeing the culmination of events that were many years in the making.
“If Napoleon did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” in other words.
But though it has long been out of favor with most historians, the Great Man theory has never totally disappeared among nationalistic elements of society. I’m not sure why, but believers in what is usually called “Right-Wing Authoritarianism” seem predisposed to favor this theory. Maybe because it complements the strong patriarchal nature of such movements.
Whatever the reason, Trump’s claim and Clinton’s reply underscore a profound philosophical difference between the two parties. (Not that Trump is aware of it–it came across as more of his usual bragging–but it spoke to something deeper in the political divide.)
Supporters of both Presidential candidates will often say the opponent is “just out for power”, or “doesn’t care about principles–they just want more power”. The Republicans constantly say Clinton is so corrupt, and involved in so many scandals, that it shows she just wants power and will stop at nothing to get it.
Democrats say that Trump is trying to gain the powers of the Presidency to satisfy his own ego, and that his willingness to lie, scream and bully his way into office reveals him as a power-hungry maniac.
If you asked Clinton if she wants power, she would probably say no, she wants to “bring us together” and “help people”. If you asked Trump the same question, he would probably say no, he just wants to “fix things” and “make America great again”.
In politics, it works like this: “I want to help people and solve problems. Theyare power-hungry monsters.”
The truth is, both of them want power. How do I know this? Because there is no other reason to want to be President. Actually, I imagine that being President is fairly miserable, since you can’t go anywhere or do anything on your own, and you and your family live under constant threat. The reward for all that is the power.
“Power” is just the ability to get things done–to accomplish meaningful change. But it has a negative connotation. Nobody gets mad when someone says “I want to make a difference in the world”, but they do if someone says “I want power”. And yet, they are the same thing. Power = ability to make a difference.
The real question is “what will someone do with power once they have it?” That’s the important part. To figure that out, you have to study the candidates’ policies, background and statements. But all politicians try to sidestep this by using the rhetorical maneuver that condemns their opponent for the simple fact they are seeking office.
For the record: Clinton seems likely to use Presidential power in much the same way that both her husband and Barack Obama did as President. A Clinton administration would be close to a third term of Obama. Trump, on the other hand, seems very impulse-driven and knee-jerk. If he had power, he would probably do whatever struck him as a good idea at any given moment.
In the words of Prince Feisal in the movie Lawrence of Arabia: “You may judge which is more reliable”.
From the time this blog began, back in the doe-eyed innocent days of 2009, there is one idea I’ve hammered on more than any other. I’ve written so many posts about it that I’ve lost track of when I wrote what. It’s not even my idea, it’s Paul Graham’s; but I have kept discussing it, debating it, and analyzing it more than even he has.
Policies, facts, scandals, money… all of these things are secondary. Modern elections are determined by which candidate has more charisma.
I thought I had a pretty nice test in 2012: Mitt Romney had tons of money, and many pundits confidently predicted he would win. But he was stiff and boring next to the charismatic and likeable President Obama. I didn’t think Romney had a chance.
I was right. Obama won re-election.
But there was one moment when I felt a little less confident of Obama’s chances: the first debate in 2012, which was a disaster for him. Romney owned the stage and seemed more vigorous and energetic than Obama. Some people said Romney was outright bullying both Obama and the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer; but the bottom line was it worked. Most people felt Romney won that debate.
Obama and his campaign learned their lesson, however; and after that, Romney lost the next two debates, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, was similarly overpowered by Vice-President Biden.
Romney had one successful moment where he was able to position himself as an energetic businessman and cast Obama as a stodgy career politician, but he couldn’t keep it up. Probably because Romney was a stodgy career politician himself.
Most people, including myself, saw this first debate, figured it was an aberration, and moved on.
But somewhere, I think someone must have seen it and thought “what if you had someone who didn’t just adopt the ‘bullying energetic businessman’ persona for one debate? What if you found someone who had dedicated his entire life to playing the character of an bullying energetic businessman?”
You would need more than that, though. Another problem with Romney was that he was so unlikable. He was not just anti-charismatic; he seemed profoundly out of touch with the common people. He was “old money”; the kind of blue-blood elitist that Republicans always complain about.
To appeal to the average voter, you want someone who behaved like stereotypical “new money”–someone who made big, gaudy purchases, and spoke the language of the typical “man on the street”.
I think you see where I’m going with this, but let me drive the point home a bit more.
Trump is not boring. Trump constantly commands the press’s attention. He does this mainly by saying stuff that is so outrageous they are compelled to cover him. And he almost never backs down from it, either.
Trump is also a big believer in the idea that negative publicity is better than no publicity. Most political candidates are terrified of negative publicity, but Trump seems to take the view that when you get it, the best follow-up action is not to apologize, but to double down on whatever caused it.
And as far as “optics” go, he is right. Pure, baseless confidence plays better on TV than nuanced reason or thoughtful consideration. When you are debating on TV, it’s better to be wrong and “full of passionate intensity” than to be right and “lack all conviction.”
The moment that truly sunk Romney in 2012 was this one, from the second debate. He looked weak and hesitant, especially contrasted with the President’s tone of calm command:
In Romney’s place, Trump would have probably just kept going and shouted down everyone, insisting that the transcript was wrong. I’m not saying it’s a good or honest way to live one’s life, but the sad fact is that it’s how you win televised debates.
Debates aren’t won on the basis of facts and policies. They certainly ought to be, and it would be a better world if they were, but the truth is they are won on the basis of who connects with the audience on a visceral level.
That is where charisma comes in. Actually, that is what charisma is: the ability to make people irrationally feel a connection with the candidate, irrespective or even in spite of what the candidate says.
Donald Trump can do that, at least with some people. Mitt Romney could not do it with anyone.
My Democratic friends usually get upset when I say that, like I’m criticizing Clinton or saying it is some kind of character flaw. It’s not that at all. Most people in the world, including many successful politicians, cannot do that. It’s a very rare ability.
Most people are afraid of public speaking. This is because they are worried about remembering what they have to say, getting the facts right, etc. But charismatic people don’t care about that–they are connecting with their audience on another level entirely.
That’s the bad news for the Democrats. The good news is that Trump’s “say outrageous stuff to get free coverage” strategy has alienated not only huge numbers of independent voters, but also many members of his own party. When a party can’t unite, it typically dooms them in a general election.
Add to this that due to a combination of demographic and political factors the Democrats start off at an advantage in terms of Electoral College votes, and it seems like this could be the election that shows the charisma theory does not always hold true.
And that is indeed how most people expect it to play out. Most polls favor Clinton. So the Democrats have every reason to feel good about their chances.
But there is one thing that should give them pause. And to see it, we have to go back again to that first debate in 2012.
The odd thing that happened in that debate was that Romney became shockingly moderate. So moderate that it caught President Obama off guard. He was surprised by Romney’s sudden change of positions, and thus unprepared for it. (You can read my original take on that debate here.)
Romney threw out a lot of the stuff he had said during the primaries, and became almost a copy of Obama. And it worked–for one debate.
And this was Mitt Romney, career Republican politician, who was throwing out his own Party’s platform. Do you think that Donald Trump, a political newbie who is currently at war with half his own party; a man who wrote a book advocating saying whatever it takes to close a deal, will have any compunction about making even more extreme changes in order to win?
I expect Trump to have adopted many of Bernie Sanders’s plans by September. He is counting on the fact that people will forget what he said earlier in the year. He is counting on the fact that breathless media coverage will want to discuss what he said that day, not what he said six months ago.
Trump will attempt to surprise Clinton by taking positions more liberal than hers on many issues, and he’ll do it in his usual over-the-top, name-calling style. He’ll try to court the liberal vote by saying he is more liberal than she is.
Will he succeed?
Hard to say. But the power of charisma is that it makes people believe things that they really have no logical reason to believe.
Republicans, such as Karl Rove, have been insinuating that Hillary Clinton is “too old” to run for President in 2016. The Democrats make the obvious reply, which is that Ronald Reagan was even older than Hillary will be in 2016 when he was elected, and the Republicans think he was one of the greatest Presidents ever. Some would say Clinton faces an unfair double-standard in this matter, because she is a woman, and thus people count her age against her more strongly than they did against Reagan.
Maybe that’s true. But that’s not the double-standard she should be concerned about. That would be the double-standard I always write about on here: the charisma double-standard.
American politics is biased in favor of “style over substance”, and so the most charismatic candidate almost always wins the Presidential election. Ronald Reagan was charismatic; Hillary Clinton is not.
This was proven, quite conclusively, by a Senator named Barack Obama in 2008. Bear in mind that I say this as someone who supported Obama over Clinton, but Clinton’s resume was far better than Obama’s for the job of President. Yet he won, because he was a more likeable individual.
Hillary Clinton is–Obama’s claims to the contrary–not likeable enough. Mitt Romney had the same problem. So did John Kerry. Pretty much every Presidential election since since 1980 has come down to the question of who is more likeable, which, since most voters never get to meet the candidates in person, is in turn determined by charisma.
Now, you may say, this seems unfair to Hillary Clinton. Yeah, it is. It’s kind of silly to pick a President based on something so nebulous. But what else can we do? You can dedicate your life to studying politics and still get everything wrong. So, the average person doesn’t have time to meticulously examine every facet of politicians. They just vote based on who “seems better”. Hillary Clinton never had charisma. Her husband did, which is probably why they have made such a successful team–she has the brains, he has the personality.
So, does this mean she can’t win the Presidency? Not necessarily. The Republicans seemingly have no charismatic candidates lined up. The only charismatic Republican I can think of is too undisciplined and arrogant to organize an intelligent campaign. The reason they are always going on about Reagan is because even after all these years, they have never found anybody half as charismatic as him to sell their contradictory policies.
But all the same, if they do manage to scare up somebody half-way likeable, the former Senator and Secretary of State will have a hard time winning. Especially since history suggests people will be reluctant to elect another person from the same party that has controlled the White House for the previous eight years.