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Donald Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Power of Lovability Over Likability

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in Boston, Mass., October 1, 2018 (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

After a few dreary days of the Elizabeth Warren likability debate, it’s worth noting that we may be moving into an era where the entire concept of mere likability is — to quote a great scene in the first Men in Black movie — is “old and busted.” The “new hotness” is lovability. It’s forming such an intense bond with your supporters that they give you all the grace of someone they love, not just a person they like. That’s the real rarefied air, and not many politicians can get there. Barack Obama got there with his base, Trump is definitely there with his core supporters, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become truly adored with remarkable political speed.

Not everyone can be lovable. Heck, legions of politicians struggle even with basic likability. It takes a special combination of factors to put you in the pantheon of politicians who are truly loved. Here’s how to be lovable in three nearly-impossible steps:

First, the lovable politician has to have a special charisma. There has to be something about their personae or biography that’s particularly appealing to the target audience. Trump has a natural gift for entertainment that’s been honed by countless thousands of hours of media attention and reality television. Moreover, his particular blunt, tough-guy approach (which is not to everyone’s taste, of course) was tailor-made for a Republican base that had felt kicked around by the media and pop culture for at least a generation.

Ocasio-Cortez has her own specific charms. She’s a gifted communicator, she’s mastered the kind and style of social-media communication that appeals to progressive millennials, and she comes across as extremely sincere — even when she says things that are factually wrong. The success of her viral social media moments — like her dancing videos — aren’t a message that politicians should try more dancing (we’re talking to you Kamala Harris), but rather that it uniquely fits her.  Other politicians can try to replicate her tactics. They can’t replicate her personality.

Second, it’s vital to have the “nobody believes in us” story. History is littered with the political carcasses of charismatic politicians, but if you really want to bond yourself to your people, nothing does it quite like an “against all odds” surprise win. This was Trump times two. He was mocked and dismissed throughout the GOP primary, even while he steamrolled. Then, he got the nomination and was mocked and dismissed throughout the general election. The deplorables comment sealed it — Trump and his people were in this together, everyone counted them out, and yet they won. Nobody should underestimate the immense psychological effect of the move from despair to triumph — for Team Trump, this was an athletic representation of election night 2016:

Ocasia-Cortez doesn’t have a moment of that magnitude, but she shocked one of the leading Democrats in the House, and she did so barely a year removed from bartending. It’s intoxicating to be an early adapter in an upset win, and then it’s even more intoxicating to ride that train to national prominence.

Third, you need the right enemies. Democrats still don’t understand what they did by nominating Hillary Clinton. They presented Republicans with the likelihood of a loss to a corrupt politician they’d been fighting against — and largely losing to — for a quarter-century. There was immense latent frustration with the notion that the Clintons were going to win again, in spite of all their scandals. There was immense frustration with the idea that the media would always and forever cover for the Clintons while putting every Republican under the microscope. Against Hillary (as history proved) there was essentially infinite tolerance for Trump’s scandals.

Moreover, no one hates the Republican establishment more than grassroots, talk-radio Republicans. And when Trump attacked Jeb Bush and John McCain with both barrels (carefully-chosen first targets, by the way), he built an immediate bond with angry, frustrated conservatives who believed that the GOP had internalized a polite, defeatist mentality (an odd view, considering that the GOP was on a historic, national winning streak when the GOP primary opened.)

And don’t get me started on the media. Certain outlets — like CNN — are so hated that even the most truthful, well-sourced negative report will cause Trump’s base to circle the wagons in defense even of the indefensible.

As for Ocasia-Cortez, the fact that she’s a favorite subject of the pop-culture, Fox News right (even if some of the alleged right-wing hate is exaggerated) acts as jet fuel for her progressive popularity. As my friend and colleague Jonah Goldberg has pointed out, in a time of negative polarization, even when politicians are wrong, when the right enemy attacks, the politician wins. He’s undoubtedly correct. Each news cycle builds her brand — so long as it’s the conservative media calling her out for her mistakes.

By the way, none of this is all that good for our nation, but it’s deeply and undeniably human. The heart wants what it wants, as the saying goes, and it stands to reason that in a time when politics is becoming so deeply personal that political attachments will grow extraordinarily intense. Real love is the charismatic politician’s true reward.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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