In the final days of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Donald Trump boasted that, unlike Hillary Clinton, he did not need celebrities to fill large stadiums with his supporters. “I didn’t have to bring J.Lo or Jay-Z,” he said. “I am here all by myself. Just me. No guitar, no piano, no nothing.” For once, the candidate was neither lying nor exaggerating. During the campaign, Trump consistently turned out larger and more enthusiastic crowds than Clinton. Indeed, in sheer zeal and passion, the crowds were unlike anything seen in American politics over the previous half-century, except for Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
Fast-forward four years and then-candidate Trump has become the president who has presided with jaw-dropping incompetence over the worst public health disaster in over a century, an economic collapse, and large-scale urban turmoil. Yet polls still show him with an approval rating hovering around 40 percent, and a hard core of his base still displays as much fervor for him as at any time since his famous descent of the Trump Tower escalator in 2015.
What is it that explains this continuing, apparently unshakable devotion to a president whom historians are likely to remember as the worst in American history? To understand the phenomenon, one must reckon with Trump’s charisma.
The word may sit uneasily with the large number of people in America and around the globe who see Trump as anything but charismatic, but this is because of a common misunderstanding about the nature of charisma. In popular usage, it tends to be seen solely as a personal quality—a mixture of charm, confidence, exuberance, and sheer sex appeal. But, in fact, charisma is more of a relationship. The same personal qualities that one audience perceives as exuberant and charming may strike another as obnoxious and overbearing. A great deal depends on what a particular audience is primed to see, is ready to see, and wants to see. Indeed, in some cases an audience may be so desperate for a charismatic savior that it projects qualities onto a person that the person completely lacks. To understand charismatic appeal, the audience matters as much as the individual. And so do the media through which the audience sees the individual and interacts with him or her.
In my new book on charisma in the age of the American Revolution, I gave an example of this approach with reference to a person whom many Americans would see as close to the diametrical opposite of Trump: George Washington. Today, Washington remains, despite the fact that he owned slaves and tolerated slavery, one of the most adored and admired figures in American history. He was adored and admired in his own time as well. We tend to forget however, that while the adoration would turn out to be well deserved, it appeared well before Washington had done very much to deserve it. In the earliest days of the American republic, Washington had a very mixed record, to say the least. Although he succeeded in forcing the British out of Boston in the late winter of 1776, that summer his tactical mistakes contributed to a disastrous American defeat in Brooklyn, followed by a painful retreat across the Hudson from New York to New Jersey. By December, the American army was melting away, British officers were boasting that the war was almost over, and some of Washington’s subordinates were muttering that, as one of them put it, “a certain great man is most damnably deficient.”
Yet during this period, not only did Washington’s reputation suffer no harm; to the contrary, it flourished. From the moment he had taken command of the American forces a year earlier, he had been greeted with a torrent of adulation. At least 15 ships were named for him and his wife. Children were given his name, and printed portraits appeared in the thousands of copies. Harvard University gave Washington an honorary degree. In mid-1776, a New Jersey family rewrote the anthem “God Save the King” with the words “God save great Washington! God damn the king!” Throughout the desperate fall of 1776, as Thomas Paine was writing “these are the times that try men’s souls,” scarcely a single word critical of Washington appeared in an American newspaper. And after Washington’s small but important wintertime victories at Trenton and Princeton revived the American cause, the flood of praise turned into a tsunami, with many admirers calling him God’s chosen instrument to save America—or even a sort of divinity himself. Already in this period, one keen observer, John Adams, claimed that the adulation of Washington indeed amounted to a species of idolatry.
But Adams also recognized that Americans needed a figure of flesh and blood to serve as a symbol of hope and unity for their very fragile new nation. Not only was the United States on the brink of defeat in 1776. It was composed of 13 strikingly different states, had an unfamiliar and untried form of government, and was in revolt against a country and king to which its free inhabitants had mostly, until very recently, felt strong loyalty. Americans did not just need a flag to follow. They needed a person, and the handsome, graceful, physically imposing Washington fit the bill perfectly, especially when appearing astride an impressive white warhorse in his immaculate uniform and powdered wig. And the American world of print, which had expanded enormously in the previous quarter century, had a key role to play in casting Washington in the role. Beyond the daily reporting about Washington in newspapers, printers rushed to profit from engraved portraits, poetry, at least one play that featured him as a lead character, and much else. Through this material, Americans (or, at least, the portion of the population that was free and literate) could come to imagine they had a personal connection with the commander in chief. This sense of a personal connection—this relationship—was at the heart of Washington’s charisma.
Skip ahead to the present and while the cast of characters is depressingly different, something of the same phenomenon is still at work. Much of Trump’s base feels that the country faces at least as great a mortal danger today as it did in the fall of 1776. (It is no coincidence that Michael Anton’s hysterical essay “The Flight 93 Election” had such resonance four years ago.) The perceived danger this time is not military nor is it economic. It supposedly comes from elites, and especially the left, who, either out of greed or sheer ideological malice, supposedly want to destroy the country and have come perilously close to doing so. Talk to members of Trump’s base and you will hear that the left’s support of the so-called LGBT agenda threatens the family. Its secularism threatens religion. Its socialism threatens capitalist prosperity. Its diversity policies threaten merit-based opportunity. Its academic radicalism threatens patriotic pride. And its globalism threatens American independence full stop. The base hears about these threats on a daily basis from talk radio and Fox News. These media deliberately stoke the fears of their audience, prompting its members to interpret the signs of instability they see all around them as tremors presaging complete social collapse (at which point there is a pause for advertisements touting precious metals, identity theft protection, and survivalist equipment). No wonder these people long for a savior.
Trump might at first appear a very unlikely candidate for the role, especially in the eyes of evangelicals. (Has there ever been a more perfect walking embodiment of the seven deadly sins?) But unlike previous Republican standard-bearers such as George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, Trump loudly and clearly identifies “the left” as a mortal enemy that must be utterly crushed to save the country and makes no attempt whatsoever to reach out to it. Despite his wealth, and the strenuous attempts he once made to win acceptance from Manhattan elites, he remains in manner and speech the brash outsider—the sort of person (“Donny from Queens”) who is heard on a daily basis phoning in to the Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity shows to rant about the liberal enemy.
These attitudes lead the base to see him as “one of us,” but at the same time his supposed talents—especially the business acumen he boasts so incessantly about—make him seem extraordinary, even “chosen.” His own secretary of state has compared him to biblical figures, while one of his many campaign managers asserted that “only God could deliver such a savior to our nation.” Such religious language, common in Washington’s day, had largely faded from American politics, at least outside evangelical circles, until the Trump era. It has now returned with a vengeance. In this context, it is worth remembering that the word “charisma” originally meant “a gift of divine grace.”
As in the 18th century, the media also matter. And it is not just that conservative media, especially talk radio and Fox, so continuously sing Trump’s praises, repeat his lies as truth, and suppress or distort information that might reflect badly on him (particularly concerning his administration’s disastrous record, compared with that of other developed countries, in handling the current pandemic). Trump himself is brilliant at using both his rallies and Twitter to build an intense, intimate, emotional bond with his followers—a charismatic relationship. His speeches—rambling, often incoherent, but also crudely funny and entertaining—resemble nothing so much as the daily monologues of the conservative shock jocks who have done so much to build up his base. If you share his positions, then in listening to him at his rallies you will feel part of a select club, sharing the jokes and insults about the “idiots” and “nasty people” on the other side.
Trump’s Twitter account has the same effect. Unlike many other politicians, Trump instinctively grasps that a distinctive feature of social media—the way algorithms put posts from politicians and celebrities on exactly the same level as posts from friends and relatives—allows him to pose as a kind of friend or relative himself so that his followers can imagine a personal relationship with him. Joe Biden’s very boring Twitter account reads mostly like a series of snippets from his press releases (e.g., “I believe that the right to vote is the most fundamental American right there is”). Trump’s Twitter account, with its crazy claims, its grammatical errors, its insults, and its repetitions, sounds like the ravings of a dyspeptic uncle. But we tend to love our dyspeptic uncles, even if we think they sometimes go too far.
These features of Trump’s charisma suggest why his support has so far eroded so little despite the world-historical disasters he has presided over this year as president. The support certainly has eroded somewhat. Meanwhile, the amiable Biden is proving far harder to cast as an ideologically dangerous left elitist than Clinton. At this point, it is hard to imagine that Biden will not receive a greater proportion of the popular vote than Clinton did four years ago. But Trump’s base, tied to him by one of the most remarkable charismatic relationships in American history, remains a formidable stumbling block, especially given the strong possibility of an utter train wreck in the ballot counting in key states on Election Day. As has been the case so many times in American history, charisma may again make the difference in 2020.
This article has been adapted from David A. Bell’s new book, Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution.