Politics & Policy

Charisma Rules Politics as Never Before

President-elect Donald Trump and President Barack Obama at the White House shortly after the 2016 election. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Having a personal following is the new key to political success.

I have a theory.

When people lose faith in institutions (political parties, organized religion, etc.) they don’t become cynics or nihilists, they simply transfer their faith to people. Specifically, two kinds of people: themselves and charismatic celebrities.

The first category seems rather obvious to me. There’s always been an acute independent streak in Americans. “You’re not the boss of me,” “Go with your gut,” and “Who are you to judge (me)?” could be national mottos.

But it seems to me that we’ve passed some kind of tipping point.

I don’t know when it happened, but the trend stretches back a long way. Some might want to start the timeline in the radicalism of the 1960s or the selfishness of the “Me Decade” 1970s. Others might lay blame on the alleged greed of the 1980s. The point is that Americans, regardless of ideology, are more inclined to go with their own moral or political instincts than to rely on experts or defer to institutions.

The consequences of this cultural revolution are a familiar lament for many conservatives. Self-esteem is valued over self-discipline. Regular church attendance has been in steady decline (the numbers are debated, the trend is not), while the number of people who say they are “spiritual but not religious” has been steadily growing. According to the Pew Research Center, 27 percent of Americans describe themselves this way. In other words, a growing number of Americans haven’t lost their religious sensibility — for want of a better word — they’ve simply decided they can be their own priests, as it were.

In short, our understanding of the world has become increasingly personalized, governed by our own judgments, instincts, and feelings.

Which brings me to that other category of people: charismatic celebrities. From Oprah to Jordan Peterson, Americans seem less interested in putting trust in institutional “brands” and more interested in following the advice of charismatic people with whom they’ve formed a personal bond.

When I use the term “charismatic,” I don’t mean the colloquial sense of “charming.” Originally, a charismatic leader was a king, general, or prophet who seemed to be imbued with, or anointed by, divine authority. (“Charisma” comes from the Greek “kharisma,” meaning “gifted with grace.”)

German sociologist Max Weber updated the term. Charismatic leaders, he wrote, have 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.”

People invest their faith in the leader, not in the formal institutions or organizations that traditionally serve as gatekeepers or validators of ideas or programs.

In contemporary America, and perhaps throughout history everywhere, the hallmark of a charismatic leader is the ability to form a personal relationship with his or her followers. People invest their faith in the leader, not in the formal institutions or organizations that traditionally serve as gatekeepers or validators of ideas or programs.

Today, political leaders — along with celebrity “influencers” from all manner of vocations — have discovered that the key to success isn’t in a particular platform or institution, but in having a personal following.

Institutions no longer fight to fend off mavericks or upstarts; institutions now try to attract them.

Political parties are late arrivals to this trend. Historically, they served as gatekeepers and validators of candidates. That’s no longer really the case.

Indeed, one of the great ironies of today’s America is that while partisanship is perhaps the defining feature of our politics, the parties themselves have never been weaker.

Barack Obama was an insurgent in the Democratic party who in effect stole the nomination from the establishment choice, Hillary Clinton, in 2008. The key to his success: He was a charismatic leader who ostentatiously ran as a kind of secular redeemer. Obama’s supporters invested staggering confidence in his personality. Some of the rhetoric about him could be described as parody if people weren’t so serious about it. Deepak Chopra insisted that Obama’s campaign amounted to a “quantum leap in American consciousness.” Barbara Walters later confessed that “we thought he was going to be . . . the next messiah.”

Similarly, in 2016, the Republican-party establishment was simply too weak to compete with the power of Donald Trump’s personal relationship with a plurality of voters (and now, it seems, with much of the party’s rank and file). Ann Coulter’s latest book title makes the point: “In Trump We Trust.”

I suspect this dynamic will define much of our politics — and our culture — long after Trump, because he was a symptom of this trend, not the author of it.

Copyright © 2018 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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