September 22, 2022

Charisma in the Age of Trumpism

William Mazzarella

Is Donald Trump charismatic? Surely not. And yet …

Charisma’s a bit like that old line about obscenity: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. Or perhaps better, when I feel it.

US historian David Bell remarks of the enthusiasms driving the Trump movement: “Trump’s base [is] tied to him by one of the most remarkable charismatic relationships in American history.”1 But what does this mean? Probably most people reading this will be nodding without quite being able to explain what they’re assenting to.

Some say charisma emanates from everything that’s most sacred. Others say it’s revolutionary, that it breaks with everything. Some say certain people or things just have it; that in some sense it is in them. Others insist that charisma is completely situational: you just had to be there. Is charisma a power or is it a relation? Is it a substance or is it an experience? Is it a force for good or does it lead us straight to hell? Is charisma compatible with democracy or does it undermine it?

Let’s hold back on the urge to define, as if a definition would make the moving parts line up properly. Let’s sit a bit, instead, with the movement, paying attention to what comes up. What kinds of desires, what kinds of anxieties.

Cornel West, in a talk given to a church congregation on the South Side of Chicago that I won’t hesitate to call a sermon, once remarked, “Donald Trump isn’t charismatic; he’s cathartic.” It makes sense that West should have drawn that distinction in a sacred space. After all, the term “charisma” comes down to us from early Christianity. It’s one of the disciple Paul’s ways of talking about the power of God’s grace. So what the devil am I doing invoking Trumpian charisma? Even if we use charisma in a “secular” way, shouldn’t we still be careful to separate the revolutionary leader from the sinister demagogue, the shepherd of souls from the maleficent mesmerizer? Maybe we can’t have one without the other.

The concept “charisma” is itself charismatic, and in just this ambivalent way. It attracts and repels. It seems to point beyond normative questions to an energetic zone. A reminder that our political life depends on infra-political energies and attachments. Maybe “charisma” is the liveliness of those energies and attachments? It certainly seems to hover close to phenomena and experiences that feel at once quite familiar and quite extraordinary. A proposition, then: thinking charisma means considering the activation of the latent dimensions of social and political life.

Max Weber (1864–1920) is the canonical social theorist of charisma. There is a great deal that could be said and has been said about Weber’s thinking on charisma. There is also a tendency to imagine that every discussion of charisma in social theory either has to affirm or refute Weber. Let’s not get caught up in that. Instead, let’s consider two aspects of Weber’s theory of charisma that seem particularly useful in these Trumpish times. (No, Trump is no longer president of the US as I write this in July 2022. But he could be again. In any case, Trumpishness will outlive him. Those energies and attachments will find—are already finding—other forms.)

The first Weberian thought that seems relevant here is that charisma is economically alien. It exceeds and disrupts everything that has to do with ordinary economies, with householding from day to day, with expected ratios of effort, reward, and virtue. Charisma interrupts a world that is all about keeping things ticking over. Weber says that there is an ausseralltäglich quality to charisma—something extraordinary in the sense of disrupting, or being external to, the everyday. The Biblical messiah who simultaneously evokes and rejects the given law says: It is written, but I say unto you

From the sublime to the banal: management and leadership theory, which has tried to domesticate charisma for its own ends (Top Strategies for Leveraging Your Inner Charismatic!), preserves something of this extra-economic dimension even at the heart of the business world. It’s there in the distinction between “transactional” and “transformational” leadership; between the leader I might follow because there’s something in it for me, and the one who makes me feel that my work is more than a job.

The second Weberian observation that is useful here is that charisma is always in statu nascendi: it is always in a state of being born. Psychoanalytic theorists of charisma have seized on this thought, since it implies that charisma has something to do with the force of what is latent. The force of some version of the Freudian unconscious. This means that charisma can’t just be explained as the strategic or cynical performance of positions or identities that are already fully manifest and known. Rather, there’s always something emergent and unpredictable about charismatic activation. Something that hovers at the very edge of what we can say at any given time. Here lies an important reason not just for the force of charisma but also for its deep moral ambiguity.

What I’m after here is not really an argument about American politics. I am suggesting that thinking charisma helps us to understand Trump and Trumpism, and vice versa. But also, more broadly, that thinking Trumpian charisma gets us to the heart of something fundamental and yet persistently ambiguous about social and political life as such. What? I want to say that Trumpism manifests, with unusual openness, something that is always true. Namely, that social life everywhere and at all times rests on energies that are in themselves amoral, beyond good and evil. Energies in which anxiety is riveted to enjoyment, fear to fascination. Trumpism may be pathological. But that’s not the same as saying that it’s a symptom of something pathological.

So what about this supposedly disruptive, anti-economic quality of Trumpian charisma? Sure, Trump’s behavior, both as a presidential candidate and as president, broke with every expectation regarding the suitable comportment of someone aspiring to any elected office in the US, let alone the highest elected office in the land. But surely this was just a symptomatic expression of long-standing underlying tensions, not least the yawning gap between all the solemn, pious talk about the dignity of the republic and the reality of extreme poverty and racialized violence? Surely Trump was just a more extreme version of the cult of narcissism that has long inflected American public life? Wasn’t this just the raging peak of a long arc of faltering white privilege? And what sense could it make to say that Trumpian charisma is economically alien, given that Trump built his profile around his splashy career as an entrepreneur? Wasn’t Trump actually the first US president who was already a consumer brand?

The first thing to remember here is that Trump’s record as a businessman has always been exceedingly bumpy. It’s always been more about visibility than about economic reason. Trump brought to his political career what he had learned as a celebrity: a curious capacity to redeem incompetence as a kind of immediacy and authenticity. In any case, it was ratings gold. Still, decades before Trump ran for office some insisted that this kind of hyper-mediated, branded charisma should at most be called “pseudo-charisma.” It’s not the real thing, the argument goes, because it’s been pre-engineered by spin doctors and marketing mavens. There are two problems with this position. First, is it not on those occasions when Trump has to read from a teleprompter, when he has to stay on script, that his charisma most palpably wilts? Second, calling hyper-mediated charisma inauthentic implies that whatever it is in us that responds to it is also inauthentic, or regressive to the point of being politically invalid. It may of course be that the whole complex turns out, looking back, to have been evil. But that’s a different matter.

I often think of David Aberbach’s formula for the false prophet: “Though the man was a fake, the longing was real.”2

Is charisma intentional? Isn’t charisma all about manipulation? Does Trump know what he’s doing, moment to moment, at the level of strategy? Isn’t he perhaps more of a political idiot savant, uncannily skilled at reading his crowds and actualizing their latencies? And isn’t this apparent lack actually what it is all about: the fascination of a leader who, for a change, seems completely to lack interiority. All those features of the normative liberal subject: self-reflection, considered intention, conscience and so on—none of that matters, none of that is there.

Instead, there is—fully, hotly—the external drama of untrammeled action, even as the Trump administration routinely struggled to push through its marquee initiatives. (Consider the difference between an administration [Trump] that thrives, energetically, on being thwarted, and one [Biden] that dwindles ever further into nothingness for the same reason.) The storming of the US Capitol by a crowd of Trump supporters on January 6, 2021 was the logical culmination of this fixation on untrammeled action. The aimlessness of the insurrectionists, once inside the sanctum sanctorum, was consistent with a drive to visible presence above all else. To those with eyes to see, the storming of the Capitol was a version of the kind of super-efficacious result that, when it comes to prophets, is sometimes called a miracle—the kind of exception that is a standard feature of charismatic authority.

Speaking of prophets, a good third of Trump voters were in fact Evangelical Christians. On the face of it, as David Bell observes, this seem unlikely: “Has there ever been a more perfect walking embodiment of the seven deadly sins?”3 But sin is closer to grace than it is to reason.4 The moral drama of the dialectic of sin and redemption has a charismatic potential that “reasonable” career politicians like Joe Biden cannot hope to match.

Isn’t the prophet who fails his followers quickly rejected—or worse? How is Trump able to sustain his popularity? How was he able to thrive amid the countless scandals and non-achievements of his presidency? The intensity of fact-checking and lie-detecting during his television appearances would routinely threaten to break the internet. But it did nothing to crumple Trump’s mojo. How come? As I’ve argued in detail elsewhere,5 it’s not so much that Trump’s followers believed Trump as that they enjoyed him. The currency of Trumpian charisma is elation rather than facts. Trump inciting chants of “lock her up!” or boasting that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it have everything to do with the fascination of a life beyond the law. (It is written, but I say unto you …) Such a primal master, even in buffoonish guise, is by definition both exciting and appalling.

To say that Trump-fans enjoy Trump is also to say that they enjoy themselves in him. Charisma involves an elated experience of shared bodily substance—in that, too, there is an uncanny line that runs from the early Christians to Trumpism. For the disciple Paul, the holy charism (God’s grace) stood against nomos (law—both Roman and Jewish). It marked and animated the Christian community as a shared body, at once physical, spiritual, and political. Every time Trump voters are dismissed as a “basket of deplorables,” the attack isn’t just symbolic. It’s substantial—felt as an assault on a shared body. And on the world in which that body wants to live. The more liberals enjoy calling out Trumpian lies, the more they in turn escalate the charismatic enjoyment of his followers. Peter Hessler, writing in the New Yorker, quoted a Trump voter in Colorado: “I’ve never been this invested in a political leader in my life … The more they hate him, the more I want him to succeed. Because what they hate about him is what they hate about me.”6

This kind of participatory elation, this kind of enjoyment, involves a double dynamic: identification and activation. This is where things get more psychoanalytic—where we grapple with what it means to say that charisma involves the activation of latencies, that charisma appears in statu nascendi. Psychoanalytic takes on charisma after Freud, starting with Heinz Kohut, have argued that charisma is a bond in which narcissistic injuries come alive on both sides of the encounter, in a kind of mutually amplifying feedback loop between leader and followers. The charismatic leader tries to repair their own wounded self-regard by seeking attention and adulation through outsized public gestures. Witness Trump’s addiction to mega-rallies even after he has long since gained (and later lost) the Oval Office. The follower, in turn, finds in the superhuman scale of the leader’s gestures an ego-ideal that overcompensates for their own humiliations. This helps to explain the extraordinarily powerful seduction of Trump’s seeming invulnerability to scandal and his refusal of politesse. For his followers, it is an opportunity to participate in omnipotence.

One of the great advantages of grounding charisma in unconscious latencies is that we don’t get stuck in the kind of tautological culturalism that is too often used to explain the charismatic effect. This kind of argument says that a leader’s message resonates with its audience because it overlaps with their already existing beliefs: their “culture,” their “values.” If we assume, conversely, that charisma only works by activating latent resonances, then it cannot, by definition, be (only) a question of strategically appealing to something already known. Instead, in psychoanalytic terms, we could say that charisma works by transferentially animating needs and conflicts which, until that moment of animation, haven’t been articulated. This helps to explain the intensity of charismatic experience, the way it’s described as a life-changing break with how things have been: “I’ve never been this emotionally invested in a political leader in my life.”

It also helps to explain how charismatic experience often feels like telepathy, precognition. Like the charismatic person knows what you need before you do. In that sense, charisma is the active externalization—and by the same token, the external activation—of the unconscious: the place where we don’t know that we know. “Charisma,” writes Donald McIntosh, “designates the force of the externalized unconscious tendencies which slip into awareness in the guise of an external force.” And: “The aura of magic springs from the resonance between what is perceived to be the external reality and the unconscious thought which is the real source of the experience.”7

Actually, I don’t think we should be too quick to say that the unconscious thought is “the real source of the experience.” Because without the “external force” of the charismatic being, there would be no “slip[ping] into awareness,” at least not in this intensely evental form. And to speak of the charismatic being only in terms of “force” downplays, I think, the concrete specificity of their magic. That it’s this word, this gesture, not that. As much as its critics might want to dismiss it that way, charisma is never generic. As Weber knew, charisma can be routinized. It can be ritualized. But in that case, it becomes citational rather than evental.

What about the puzzling fact that deeply flawed, even repulsive people are routinely experienced as charismatic? Charismatic attraction has little to do, at root, with moral approval. Freud taught us that attraction and attachment are fundamentally ambivalent. And it may be that the most charismatic person is the one who activates the deepest ambivalences. Ambivalences that go way beyond good and evil. This is the mark of jouissance, the intensity of an enjoyment that goes beyond pleasure and pain. The flame that burns where vitalization and self-destruction are indistinguishable. A Trump voter told Tom McCarthy: “If I have to lose it all, I need for him to win.”8

Can the charismatic effect be predicted? After Trump won in 2016, pundits, psephologists, and social scientists fell over each other to ask forgiveness for their failure. How could this have happened? quickly turned into If we had only asked the right people, looked in the right places … But perhaps the lesson of charisma is that its eventality precludes adequate prediction. If the grounds of the charismatic effect are latent or even repressed, then it’s quite possible that the decisive factors that lead to a particular electoral outcome aren’t actualized before that decisive moment in which they make all the difference. Which also means that they can’t be documented in advance. At least not in the guise that they will assume in the emergence of the event.

This is also why Trump isn’t simply “politically incorrect.” It’s not just that “he says what others are thinking but are afraid to say.” It’s also that he is—“miraculously”—able to say what others didn’t even know they wanted to say—and often, I suspect, what even he didn’t know he wanted to say … until he says it.

Mainstream political analysis of charisma heaves with melodrama. The stench of appalling atavisms and totalitarian teloi. But it’s too easy to lunge for the f-word every time Trumpish charisma comes up for discussion, even if the Trump movement often evinces clearly fascistoid tendencies. For good reasons, liberal critics are alarmed by charisma, seeing in it only unreason and in unreason only falsehood. For good reasons: charisma requires that we think politics in terms of psychosocial factors that can’t simply be dismissed as regressive or as unworthy of a mature public sphere. But that’s exactly how charisma is too often treated. That stern, arms-folded line-holding against charisma, like a secularized version of the priest praying ever more fervently in the presence of the demon: Get thee behind me, post-truth! Down, down, myth and spectacle! The same flicker of panic, of terrified recognition behind the staunch stance.

In fact, Trumpism is a liberal wet dream. It makes it all too easy to reduce the power and potential of charisma to an obscene cartoon. This is a massive lost opportunity to suspend our normative anxiety long enough to understand something more fundamental. McIntosh put it admirably half a century ago:

The ability to tap these forces lies behind everything that is creative and constructive in human action, but also behind the terrible destructiveness of which humans are capable. White and black magic have the same source. In the social and political realm, there is no power to match that of the leader who is able to evoke and harness the unconscious resources of his followers.9

Is Donald Trump charismatic? Hell yes.

This essay is a distillation and reworking of a longer piece, “Populist Leadership and Charisma,” in Elgar Research Handbook on Populism, ed. Yannis Stavrakakis and Giorgos Katsambekis (Edward Elgar Publishing, forthcoming).

Notes
1

David Bell, “What Donald Trump and George Washington Have in Common,” Foreign Policy, August 17, 2020 .

2

David Aberbach, “Charisma and Judaism,” in Routledge International Handbook of Charisma, ed. José Pedro Zúquete (Routledge, 2021), 147.

3

Bell, “What Donald Trump and George Washington Have in Common.”

4

Thanks to Amy Leia McLachlan for this formulation.

5

William Mazzarella, “Brand(ish)ing the Name, or Why is Trump so Enjoyable?” in W. Mazzarella, Eric L. Santner, and Aaron Schuster, Sovereignty Inc: Three Inquiries in Politics and Enjoyment (University of Chicago Press, 2019), 113–60.

6

Peter Hessler, “Follow the Leader,” New Yorker, July 24, 2017, 26.

7

Donald McIntosh, “Weber and Freud: On the Nature and Sources of Authority,” American Sociological Review 35, no. 5 (1970): 902.

8

Tom McCarthy, “Trump Loyalists Stand by Their Man—but the Resistance is Taking Root,” The Guardian, February 17, 2017 .

9

McIntosh, “Weber and Freud,” 902–3.

Category
Psychology & Psychoanalysis
Subject
USA

William Mazzarella writes and teaches on the political anthropology of mass publicity, critical theory, affect and aesthetics, psychoanalysis, ritual and performance, and the occult shadow of the modern. He is the Neukom Family Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago.

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