The Charismatic Appeal of Donald Trump

Long, long ago, in 1998, I wrote a graduate thesis on Charismatic Leadership and the role culture plays in the phenomenon. I won an award for that thesis, and it has been on my mind frequently as I have watched the rise of Donald Trump.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Long, long ago, in 1998, I wrote a graduate thesis on Charismatic Leadership and the role culture plays in the phenomenon. I won an award for that thesis, and it has been on my mind frequently as I have watched the rise of Donald Trump. At first I scoffed at the idea he could become a candidate, then I watched uneasily as he bullied and browbeat his Republican opponents into the dust. I was incredulous as he accepted the GOP nomination, and I still cannot believe that the Republicans allowed him to basically take over the party. So how did he do it? How does a rich, egotistical New York real estate developer who became famous for his tabloid exploits with women, marriages and casinos in the 80s and 90s morph into a political candidate? How does a reality tv star with no real knowledge of policy, politics or foreign affairs catapult himself to the top of the Republican ticket? I have watched, and I have studied. Donald Trump is a charismatic figure, and he has effectively tapped into fear.

Trump's base of followers consists of high school or less educated, white, working and middle class people. He has tapped, quite knowingly, into their fear of "the other". He became famous for his birtherism, a racist and xenophobic belief that our first Black president could not possibly be an American, but had to be a socialist, Muslim "plant" who wanted to destroy America. Where does this hysteria come from? The last thirty or forty years has seen America change from a manufacturing and industrial economy to a service and technological economy. American companies, including Trump's companies, do their manufacturing overseas, where it is cheaper. Well paid manufacturing jobs, part of our economy for many years, are no longer competitive in America. These displaced laborers see the world they grew up in being threatened by multiculturalism, globalization, free trade and technology. They are angry, and when people are angry, they seek a scapegoat. It is understandable, this anger, such as it is, but it is dangerous at best, calamitous at worst.

Enter Donald Trump. He tells Americans he will make our country great again, that our fictitious decline is the fault of Mexicans and Muslims and the evil Kenyan born Black President who is secretly a follower of Islam. The message is by ridding our country of these job stealing illegals and "Islamic terrorists", by building a wall to keep them out, America can bring back manufacturing jobs and return to the old days. By appointing super conservative judges to the Supreme Court, America can get rid of women's right to choose, marriage rights for all citizens, affirmative action, health care laws, environmental protections and change the immigration laws to exclude, and expel, "undesirables". Donald Trump has stirred the pot, and brought out the un-American part of America's nature.

Trump's charisma has a mission to seek change: its goal is to remain outside the realm of ordinary life. It exhibits no rational economic conduct. The charismatic Trump is above the law, and has no interest in legal codes, formal rules, or abstract principles. Those who follow Trump project their own beliefs onto his leadership, and are emboldened by the reflection. We see this play out daily in Trump rallies across the country.

Trump and his followers seek the return of the "glory days". As a result, we see the behavior of these people at Trump rallies, freed from political correctness they enthusiastically exhibit racism, sexism, xenophobia, and promotion of violence. For his opponent, a woman, there is disdain and hatred, but t-shirts reading "Hillary sucks but not as good as Monica" or "bitch" debase all women, not just Hillary Clinton. Cries of "lock her up", the belief that she has "killed millions of people" and rigs the system in her favor, is hysterical hyperbole. Trump's comments that the "second amendment people" could take care of Secretary Clinton, and her Secret Service Agents should "drop their guns", are incitements to violence. Offering to pay legal expenses for "hitting" protestors is not exactly the norm for a candidate. How does he get away with this unimaginable propaganda? Trump has touched a deep vein within his following: he does not espouse new belief systems, but brings out the old and familiar anger, hatred, racism, and sexism of his base. Trump legitimates these feelings, and encourages people to express them. Now, with the release of the video of him saying he can basically do whatever he wants to women because he is a "star", his supporters are still defending the indefensible. We truly are in some sordid reality show.

Students of history find these truths disturbing, to be sure. Charismatic figures who promote fear and ignorance do not bring peace and stability to their nations. Like others before him, Trump believes himself above all others, only he can fix America, only he knows the way. A demagogue who sows fear, objectifies women, and ignites hatred is not the leader America needs. We need a calm, steady hand at the wheel, with policies that will help our millennials, our middle class, our economy, our multiculturalism and global society grow. Trump represents the worst of America, and we must be sure he does not get the chance to destroy our nation. The only weapon we have to fight him with is our vote. Make sure it counts.

Popular in the Community