The Secret of Donald Trump's Charisma

Watching the candidate find his positions is like watching a man tune a radio.


Trump on the stump

Glenn Thrush had a pretty good line this morning about Donald Trump's presidential campaign:

Trump may be the ultimate it's-all-about-me candidate, but the piercing paradox of 2016 is that it actually isn't about him—but about his ability to capture the mood of his voters, and that, more than anything, explains his pundit-defying durability.

That ability to capture his niche's mood isn't—or isn't always—an instantaneous, instinctual thing. Sometimes you can actually watch the process happen. Think of all the times Trump has changed his political positions. I don't mean the many ideas he jettisoned before the campaign began, like his former support for legal abortion; I mean his everyday reactions to events in the news, as when he shifted within weeks from saying Americans "have to" bring in Syrian refugees to saying "we should help, but I think we should be very careful" to declaring "If I win, they're going back." Watching Trump find his position is like watching a man tune a radio, gradually discovering the place where his fans want him to be and then making it his home.

The sheer shamelessness of Trump's flip-flopping surely helps him more than it hurts: It advertises just how willing he is to be a vehicle for his supporters' opinions. It also says something about the way political charisma works. As James C. Scott wrote in Domination and the Arts of Resistance,

Not how it works
Johnson Smith & Co.

Charisma, as it is normally understood, has a suspect air of manipulation about it. In ordinary usage, it suggests that someone possesses a personal quality or aura that touches a secret nerve that makes others surrender their will and follow. The term personal magnetism is frequently used, as if charismatic figures had a force that aligned followers like so many iron filings caught in their field of force. I would not want to deny that instances of charisma along those lines exist, but the complete surrender of personal will to a figure of power is, I believe, a comparatively rare and marginal phenomenon….

As sociologists are fond of pointing out, the relational character of charisma means that one "has charisma" only to the extent that others confer it upon one; it is their attribution of charisma that establishes the relationship. We know, as well, that such relationships are often highly specific and relational. What is charismatic for one audience is not compelling for another; what works in one culture falls flat in another.

From this perspective, it is the cultural and social expectations of followers that exercise a controlling or at least limiting influence over the would-be charismatic figure.

Trump is using his nationalist fan base to try to win the Republican presidential nomination; Trump's fan base is using him to bring its worldview onto the political stage. Whether or not Trump succeeds, his fans already have.