I’m a big believer in the “charisma theory” of Presidential elections.  To summarize, the idea is that the more charismatic candidate always wins. It has held in every election since 1992, and examples can be found going back to 1960.  In fact, the only instance I know of in which the more charismatic candidate lost was in 1896, before TV or radio existed.

One curious thing about charismatic candidates is that seemingly they always go up against non-charismatic opponents–people who may be good, studious, diligent policy wonks, but who are also stiff and boring.  Or, to use the words of Paul Graham, the creator of the theory, “people who are earnest, but dull.”

Think about it: the big knock on Hillary Clinton was that she “couldn’t connect with people”–versus Trump, who could at least connect with angry white men.

Same deal in 2012: Obama was one of the most charismatic politicians in history, and Romney was famously stiff and awkward.

Again, 2008: Charismatic Obama against boring, tired John McCain.

It goes on. In 2004, folksy “just a regular guy” George W. Bush vs. famously boring speaker John Kerry.

2000: Folksy Bush beats dull, awkward Al Gore.

1996: Legendarily charismatic Bill Clinton beats old, tired Bob Dole.

It goes on and on. Now and then you get elections where neither candidate was charismatic (Bush vs. Dukakis, Nixon vs. McGovern and Humphrey) but you seemingly never get two charismatic candidates running against each other. (Imagine what Trump vs. Obama would have been like!)

That seems highly improbable when you consider that there are lots of charismatic politicians, and that charismatic politicians have an innate advantage over non-charismatic ones. They should be running against each other all the time. What’s going on?

One possibility is that charisma is a winner-take-all sort of thing, in that whichever candidate is more charismatic automatically makes the opponent seem stiff and boring by comparison.  So if A is more charismatic than B, B looks boring, but B might be more charismatic than C, and make C look boring.

But it doesn’t seem to work this way.  Nixon lost to Kennedy on charisma, but he beat Humphrey and McGovern without getting any more charismatic.  Charisma simply wasn’t a factor in those elections.

Another possible explanation is that when one party has been out of power for a while, they become more likely to nominate a charismatic candidate. (Charismatic candidates usually start as long-shot outsiders, e.g. Obama and Trump) Similarly, when a party has been in power for a while, they are more likely to nominate a careerist politician who has paid their dues in the party. (e.g. McCain, H. Clinton)

If that’s the case, it apparently runs in an eight year cycle, conveniently matching up with Presidential term limits, and thus preventing possible “high-charisma showdowns”, as would have happened with Clinton vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Trump.

This could be the case, although it seems like an awfully big coincidence that it takes almost exactly eight years for one party to get a charismatic candidate, and that the other party seemingly forgets this lesson every eight years.

What are your thoughts on this pattern?


Everyone is talking about the above speech.  Trump himself, who can never resist a celebrity feud, was compelled to respond on Twitter.  Apparently, that took priority over listening to intelligence briefings.

Meghan McCain, the daughter of Senator John McCain, also tweeted about it, saying:

This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won. And if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how – you will help him get re-elected

This echoes many commentators, both Republicans and Democrats, who blame Hillary Clinton’s loss partly on her support from various actors, singers, and other celebrities. It made Democrats seem out of touch with the salt-of-the-Earth workers in the Rust Belt.

Moderate Republicans and Bernie Sanders voters alike have argued that the Democrats need to jettison celebrity support and focus on connecting with “everyday folks”.

It makes for a nice story. But it’s not true.

President Obama received overwhelming celebrity support in both of his campaigns. That didn’t hurt him a bit.  If anything, it helped, because many people admire celebrities and respect their opinions.

Moreover, Trump went out of his way to bring up all his celebrity endorsements, even though he had way fewer than Clinton.  He would even claim celebrities supported him when it wasn’t clear that they did.

So, if that’s the case, why do we keep hearing this “blame-the-celebs” line?

Simple: Republicans fear the Democrats’ famous and influential supporters.  So they are trying to stop them.

This is nothing new. Lots of Democrats (and moderate Republicans) said Republicans could never win with someone like Trump as their nominee.  They claimed they could not get enough votes with a candidate so widely despised.

But clearly, that claim was incorrect. And many of the people who made it probably knew it was incorrect. The real reason they did not want the Republicans to nominate Trump was precisely because they feared he would win.

It is the same thing here: Republicans are attempting to neutralize the Democrats’ advantage in mobilizing voters using celebrity endorsements. Democrats should not listen to them.

Be it known, then, that there are two ways of contending, one in accordance with the laws, the other by force; the first of which is proper to men, the second to beasts. But since the first method is often ineffectual, it becomes necessary to resort to the second.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Politicians will tell you they are not out for power, but they’re lying.  There is no other reason to be in politics.  The business of politics involves two activities:

  1. Seizing power
  2. Exercising power once you have seized it

If that sounds cynical, know that power is not always bad.  Some people want it in order to do good things.  Other people, to quote a Batman film, just want to watch the world burn.

You can tell whether someone is good, bad, or otherwise by looking at their handling of point no. 2 above-what do they do with power, having seized it?

The problem is, if they turn out to be bad, there’s not much you can do about it at that point, because, well, they have power.

So, you need to find out whether they are bad earlier, when they are still at point no. 1.

But history suggests that the skills needed to seize power are often precisely the skills that are undesirable in people who actually wield power. That is, the ruthless, win-at-all-costs mentality that is needed to successfully seize power is not the kind of mindset you want in someone who holds power.

(The reverse is also true. The spirit of compromise and tolerance that’s desirable in a person holding power is absolutely crippling in someone trying to seize power.)

This is true seemingly across different time periods and forms of government.  Be it the countless revolutionaries-turned-dictators who were ultimately overthrown or disgraced, or the rule of thumb in modern politics that the best campaigners are often the worst office-holders, the pursuit of power and the use of it seem to always demand different skill sets.

The American Revolution is one of the big exceptions I can think of–in that one, the people who seized power don’t seem to have become bloodthirsty monsters once they won.  Maybe this was because they were wise people, inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment.  Or maybe it was because the government they were rebelling against was headquartered across an ocean, and so they didn’t have to be too vicious in order to defeat it.

But this seems to have been an exception that proves the rule.  And thus we are left with the dilemma that few who are capable of getting power are fit to wield it.

A lot of Democrats said that if Clinton lost the election, they would move to Canada, or New Zealand, or somewhere else altogether different.

Seems to me that what they should have done instead was move to the Midwest or the Southeast.  After all, that is where Clinton lost the key states with high electoral vote counts.

To illustrate: Clinton won California with 5,860,714 votes to 3,151,821–a difference of 2,708,893 votes. Meanwhile, she lost Pennsylvania by 2,905,958 votes to only 2,841,280–a difference of 64,678 votes.

So, if 64,679 Democrats had been in Pennsylvania instead of California, she would have still won California handily, and also carried Pennsylvania.

That would get her to 248 electoral votes–still not enough to win. Can we take this any further?

Yes, we can. Clinton lost Michigan by 13,225 votes. So lets take 13,226 more Democrats out of California and move them into Michigan. Clinton is now winning California 5,782,810 to 3,151,821, and she’s winning Michigan and Pennsylvania as well. And she’s got 264 electoral votes. Still six shy of the number needed.  Can we scrounge up those votes somewhere?

Clinton lost Florida by a score of 4,605,515 to 4,485,745, a difference of 119,770 votes. So, let’s do one more giant population shift, and move 119,771 voters from California to Florida. Clinton is now eking out a razor-thin 2.5 million vote win in California while winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.  This puts her at 293 electoral votes–more than enough to win.

This is the the thing about urban cosmopolitanism vs. rural nationalism: the Democrats have more total voters, but they are concentrated in a few areas. The Republicans are spread out all over the place.

In theory, this could actually help the Democrats, since the number of electoral votes is based on  the number of congressional districts, which is in turn based on population. But clearly, the size of California’s voter population is disproportionately large relative to their number of electoral votes. Moreover, the districts are only redrawn every ten years, so population changes that take place within that interval are not reflected.

The Democrats’ problem is that huge numbers of their voters are concentrated in a few states, where the marginal impact of a vote is low.  If they were more spread out, they would likely have better results.

Before we begin, here’s some irony for you:


Well, I was obviously wrong when I predicted that Clinton would win comfortably.

To be honest, I screwed this up badly.  My gut instinct told me that Trump fit the model of a winning candidate, and  Clinton fit the model of a losing one. Why? Because of the all-important “charisma” factor, which I have now spent nearly seven years analyzing.

But because most polls said otherwise, and because most experts thought it was impossible, and because of all the appalling things Trump has done and said, I went with the conventional wisdom and assumed the charisma theory wouldn’t apply.

Instead, it was vindicated.

I had the following exchange on Twitter with Paul Graham, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist who wrote the original essay that introduced me to the charisma theory of politics:


I know I’ve said it a million times, but read Graham’s essay. Parts of it are prescient:

The charisma theory may also explain why Democrats tend to lose presidential elections. The core of the Democrats’ ideology seems to be a belief in government. Perhaps this tends to attract people who are earnest, but dull. Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry were so similar in that respect that they might have been brothers. Good thing for the Democrats that their screen lets through an occasional Clinton, even if some scandal results.

Talking of which, this post of mine from 2010 was also rather disturbing to reread:

The blind loyalty felt by the devotees to their political messiahs is something which fundamentally alters the nature of the political conflict. And it is this, I believe, which drives the oft-bemoaned lack of “civility” and “moderation” in today’s discourse. Cults are not rational, but emotional.

What makes this all the more troubling is not that it is a corruption of the democratic system, but rather that it seems to be the logical conclusion of it. The average voter, after all, cannot really be expected to keep up with the nuances of the issues. To do so requires too much time…

…So I think we must resign ourselves to the fact that charisma–and the resultant cults of personality–are going to be the driving energy of our political system for the foreseeable future. The best we can hope for, at this point, is probably that our elected leaders will not abuse their charisma. Given the corrupting influence of power however, that seems unlikely.

The point here is that even people like me and Graham, who had devoted a lot of time and thought to how this sort of thing could happen, failed to realize it even as it was happening.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about charisma, about rural nationalism, about political advertising–even about Vladimir Putin–and in this election, almost all of it played out like I would have expected, if I’d only trusted what I knew, rather than assuming that others knew better.

Of everything I’ve written about politics, I suppose this post was the most explicitly relevant:

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.

The Republican I was thinking of was Palin. Trump wasn’t even on the radar at that point.

And, as it turned out, being undisciplined and arrogant was no hindrance to running a successful campaign.

That said, the truly arrogant ones here were political analysts–including myself–who refused to believe in what we were seeing; who stubbornly clung to the notion that a candidate as obnoxious and scandal-plagued as Trump could not win, even after he proved us wrong once.

If I had simply been honest with myself about how Trump’s campaign corresponded to everything I knew about how politics works, maybe I would have been more vocal about the surprisingly high probability he would win.  And that might have motivated more people on my side to do things differently.

Paradoxically, if more people had believed he could win, his chance of actually winning probably would have declined.

I remember when I was 15 years old reading in a book of military history about how, at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon ignored some of his own long-standing tactical rules, leading to his defeat.  At the time, I made a mental note that ignoring one’s own beliefs was usually a bad idea.

The warfare analogy is pretty apt in a larger sense, too. Trump’s campaign resembled a lot of successful military campaigns throughout history, in the sense that it won by being smaller and more able to change and adapt quickly than its larger, better-funded, but also more conventional opponent. (This is also the same logic that leads to small startups defeating big corporations.)

Finally, the Trump campaign won by challenging conventional wisdom and proving it wrong.  Nearly all professional political strategists took for granted that you couldn’t win by appealing to nationalist sentiments.  Trump’s campaign challenged that idea, and proved it incorrect.

I’ll have much more later.  This is going to require a lot of work.

Derived from this image; http://www.fewlines.com/images_final/gallery/deus_ex_3_hr_concept_art/deusupdate/deus_ex_illuminati_hand_ingame_01_rdumont_fewlines.jpg
Image from “Deus Ex”

Lately, Donald Trump and his supporters have been accusing his opponent, and the press, of being part of a globalist conspiracy.  This CNN money article sums it up well:

In the Breitbart worldview, the mainstream media is just as agenda-driven and prone to bias and falsehoods as right-wing media — it’s just that the mainstream media doesn’t acknowledge it.

“This is a group of people serving the same agenda,” [Breitbart News Editor-in-Chief Alex] Marlow said.

Trump echoed those remarks in Thursday’s speech: “The establishment and their media enablers wield control over this nation through means that are very well known,” he said.

That agenda, Bannon and Breitbart’s fiercest partisans believe, is the advancement of open borders, free trade and progressive poliicies at the expense of American sovereignty. “Liberal vs. Conservative” no longer adequately describes the partisan divisions at play in American politics today, Marlow said. The real battle is between populists and globalists.

As my readers know, I have been saying practically the same thing for years now.  I use the word “cosmopolitan” instead of “globalist” and “nationalist” instead of “populist”, but it amounts to the same thing.  Marlow even uses the word nationalist later in the same article, saying:

“It’s less about the left-right dichotomy, and more along the lines of globalists and elitists versus populists and nationalists.”

I could see myself saying that, to be honest.

So, does that mean I think that the Breitbart/Trump crowd has the right idea? No; not at all.

The saying “even a broken clock is right twice a day” is apt here.  The Trump supporters (the so-called “alt-right”) have stumbled on to a fact about American politics that most political scientists, analysts and commentators overlooked.  In fact, they might even be the cause of the phenomenon, since all of them take the nationalist side.

However, despite the fact that they are aware of this dichotomy, very few of them seem to understand any of the historical, political or economic reasons for it.  They simply happened to notice this state of political affairs, and rather than try to understand it, they simply chalk it all up to a sinister conspiracy. This makes for a good story, but it’s not how the world works.

Globalism is popular because it works very well with ideas espoused by both the Democrats and the Republicans. It fulfills goals of diversity and multiculturalism that the Democrats historically support, and free trade, which the Republicans historically support.

The nationalists often disparage the “global elite” but it is not necessarily a bad thing that successful, well-educated people from different nations tend to find common cause and work together. This increases the probability that disputes between nations can be solved through negotiation or trade deals, rather than through wars.

This brings me to one of the reasons that nationalism is so unpopular nowadays, which is that it is considered responsible for two World Wars.  As a consequence, it fell out of favor as a governing philosophy.

I’m not saying that massive wars are the inevitable result of nationalism, or that wanting to protect national sovereignty is inherently bad.  I’m just saying that nationalists need to explain why it won’t cause any giant wars, since that has happened before.

There is no doubt that there are drawbacks to globalization.  It is possible that its adherents have not considered these, or that they have overreached in the pursuit of globalization, or that globalism is not the best governing philosophy for the current moment in history. All these are topics worth discussing.

The problem is, almost no one on the nationalist side is interested in discussing things. They have simply decided that globalism is an evil conspiracy invented by bad people.  They do not have, and do not appear to want, any context or understanding of its origins or the reasons it exists.

Trump himself, the de facto nationalist candidate, has even less interest in the merits of globalism vs. nationalism.  His decision to promote nationalist policies is purely pragmatic.  He adopted it when he discovered it would enable him to win the Republican nomination. I think that the only reason he won’t abandon it now is because, for a host of reasons, only ardent nationalists will support him at this point. If he drops nationalism, he is left with nothing.