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What is political charisma?


I believe that it’s a fundamental mistake to confuse personal charisma with political charisma.

Personal charisma is a set of qualities possessed by individuals. Here’s a novelistic example:

He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

That’s Nick Carraway’s description of Jay Gatsby. Countless people have said very similar things about, for example, Bill Clinton: that in a room full of hundreds of people he could somehow give you the impression that your presence was of great interest and value to him, even if you had never met him before and he had no idea who you were.

But again I think it’s a category error to confuse personal charisma with political charisma. Clinton has or had both, and the two are no doubt in some ways related, but the differences between the two seem to me more important than the similarities.

The idea of charisma in the political sense was first described by Max Weber, who considered it one of the three basic forms of political authority, along with the traditional and the bureaucratic. Here’s his definition:

Charisma is 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 as such 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.

The key point about Weber’s definition, besides its inherent vagueness — he never in his extant writings provides any concrete description of this “certain quality” — is that he locates the origin of this certain quality in the audience, not in the charismatic leader (“treated as endowed,” “are regarded,” “is treated.”).

This point is constantly overlooked or ignored. Standard political discourse assumes that political charisma is an inherent personality trait of certain politicians; Weber’s definition assumes, correctly I believe, that political charisma is a quality that is projected onto the leader by the led, because they want to find what they are looking for, and therefore do find it in whatever convenient vessel they pour their desires for “genuine leadership” (genuine meaning the opposite of traditional or bureaucratic in Weber’s schema).

Now again, personal charisma is a thing that exists, and some politicians have it and some don’t. Certainly personal charisma can help make a politician a locus of political charisma. But they are not at all the same thing, and personal charisma is neither a necessary nor sufficient quality in a politician who is imbued by his followers with political charisma.

(Note that political charisma seems to be an almost exclusively male phenomenon, with extremely rare exceptions — Eva Peron may be the most striking counter-example. This is not coincidental: in a patriarchal society, followers are not going to look for political charisma in women politicians and so of course they won’t find it.)

This is why we can find political charisma attributed to figures who have little or no personal charisma. Donald Trump has zero personal charisma: he is the exact opposite personality type from Bill Clinton and Jay Gatsby: in a room full of hundreds of people, he seems completely unaware that any of the others besides himself actually exist. A monstrously narcissistic sociopath, he is utterly bereft of charm or personal attractiveness in the conventional sense.

This same basic observation can be made about the most infamous charismatic leader in history, Adolph Hitler. Hitler was an ugly little man who screamed a lot at his audience in what people who know German tell me was a vulgar and ineloquent way, that was the opposite of rhetorically convincing on its own terms. But the audience and the nation was hypnotized by him. Why? Because they wanted to be.

What Hitler was screaming at them was what they wanted to hear, so they imbued this absurd and disgusting figure with essentially supernatural qualities of “leadership.” This is the essence of cult leadership: most cult leaders are not in any way charismatic in the personal sense, as anyone who has not allowed themselves to become spellbound by the cult can readily attest.

What Trump screams at his audience is what the audience desperately wants to be told. (Standard disclaimer: Trump is not Hitler). That is why this absurd and disgusting figure is “charismatic” in the Weberian sense: because his audience wants to be hypnotized.

This is something to remember when people argue about whether a particular politician is charismatic or not: political charisma is something the audience creates in the politician, rather than something the politician inherently possesses.

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