Today’s Pontificate – No.. this isn’t a post about the guy pictured above. Well, it is a bit of an “in memorium”, but his character persona was his charisma. Yet it does illustrate to some degree how some people can manage to find loyal followers based on a personal “charisma” in delivering particular message… at the right time.
I recall many, many years ago when I was in my elementary school years and into high school (the 50’s and early 60’s) one of the more intriguing words coming to light it seems was the word, ”charisma”. This was not as common a word in the vocabulary as it is these days. Many words seem to fall into some generational popularity category that fit more use or less use as it might relate to current fads or events. These words are not so much slang variants like “cool” or “dude”. For example, the word “holocaust” didn’t have much popular usage until well into the 50’s to describe the Nazi purge of the Jews in World War II. A more contemporary example seems to have come to light in just the last four years of the Trump presidency from the talking heads on TV providing opinion using the word “juxtapose” in their lingo. I seem to recall having read that the use of the word “conflagration” first came into popularity as a description of the unimaginable horror of the firestorm generated during the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden during WW2 and the Japanese cities. Since then the word has come to its own to describe the result of nuclear detonation, or a World War III scenario in wiping out humanity in a huge firestorm.
Anyway… in my early wonder years I recall a growing popularity in the word “charisma” being generally applied to define the so-called mystery surrounding Hitler’s ability to captivate crowds to follow him. How could he convince all those German people to follow him? Hence it seemed the word grew to take on a negative description assigned to dictators and other nasties in the world that acquired followers to a cause and subsequently perform dastardly deeds. Over the years the word has taken on a more original, generalized use, less negative, to describe a more neutral characterization of someone who has an ability through their public persona and/or oratory skills to hold the interest , or captivate, a portion of society. The late Evangelist Billy Graham had a religious charisma. Martin Luther King in his day had a social charisma that inspired the interest in civil rights. President Obama rose in popularity because of his charisma gained in part from articulate public speaking.
But charisma is not just to define only those humans who manage who acquire the honor, respect, and sometimes devotion of the rest of us but also describes in smaller scale our individual relationships we form throughout life. We meet someone… we develop an informal “chemistry” that can blossom into simple friendships because of a personal charisma. You like what the other person says; you like what the other person is interested in doing; you feel comfortable being with them and sharing a part of yourself with them. You have “fallen” for their personal, and personable, charisma. In fact, relationships that turn into love are an excellent example of someone falling for your personal charisma… and you falling for their charisma.
The Trumpian Charisma
My exploration here into the use of the word “charisma” is partly trying to reconcile for myself the phenomenon of Trump’s ability in securing the support of an impressive 50% of voting Americans who came out to vote with equal vigor and determination as the other 50% who want to stop his presidency at one term. Of equal interest to me is if his level of charisma has secured 50% then why has not more fallen under his “spell”. I am well aware that the 50% who have voted for Biden also include a large segment of voters who voted for Biden, not so much because of any charisma he may or may not demonstrate to present his message, but because those voters dislike Trump far more.
I mentioned above the idea of Trump imposing a “spell”. Quite obviously there is nothing mystifying or magical. When compared with Biden, Trump’s persona is a much more dynamic personality, his personal views are much more not status quo, and his methods in achieving what he wants are hugely not conventional and non-traditional. All that by no means implies his views, methods, and type “A”, dynamic personality are or should be universally accepted. You will note that in my earlier examples of leadership charisma including the often displayed characteristic of speaking in an articulate, learned, manner and conveying a concise message. Trump absolutely cannot and does not do that. In fact, his message is all about conveying fear of “the other side” which is the opposition. Also, he conveys the fear by expressing lies and untruths, and not only demeans fellow Americans but also our American institutions. In other words, his message itself combined with his guttural, defiant gaslighting delivery presents an image that amazingly a large percentage… 50%.. of Americans find appealing. But is the charisma the typical Trump supporter finds appealing all about the message or is it the messenger… or a measure of both? It’s easy to say both… but I think it’s “both” for diverse reasons. He has a vision of America, a cultural bias that appeals to many white Americans. But his presentation is also a form of entertainment given he seldom filters what he says and there’s a measure of shock value to his views and “hammer” agenda. He says those unfiltered things most people keep inside. He’s also animated in his presentation and performs to his audience.. responding to their cheers and jeers. His greatest pre-political talent has been his own ability to market himself and his name commercially. A lot of this fed a charisma of “success” founded more on myth than fact.
So……. where are we at in all this “charisma” exploration?
Well, first off, Biden winning does not carry with it some huge universal mandate for change. He’s certainly achieved the most popular votes of any presidential candidate in U.S. history. To counter that, Trump is second on that historical statistic; together they have split in half a record-setting voter turnout. Again, a good percentage of Biden’s votes were because some voters simply disliked Trump more. There must be a respect and consideration for Trump’s 50% supporters, as misguided as some of us non-Trumpers might think they are. There is a demographic that falls into his supporters that needs review. But we need to also keep in mind that likely very few members of Congress in the GOP that supports Trump has fallen for any sort of Trumpian “blunt force” charisma… but feel compelled to survive politically by towing the Trump GOP line.
To reflect back on history a bit, historians tend to agree that the public opinion to declare independence from England held at a rough 50%. It was not some universal “mandate” of a strong numerical majority. One could also argue that it was the wealthy and educated capitalists of the day that had the means and money to carry independence forward. A lot of average urban and rural folks still favored loyalty to the Crown for fear of retribution, loss of security (internal threats from Indians on the frontier, and outside threats from France and Spain), and loss of trade that would affect an economy. Those who carried “charisma” in those days were either articulate in speech with a popular message, and/or, were effective in written word. It ended up they acquired a sufficient majority to make the fight for independence a success.
But here’s the thing about charisma. In seeking power, or votes, a strong demonstrated charisma can make a difference, but it’s not required. We’ve seen in this election that the stronger charisma doesn’t always win the field if the message isn’t there… and charisma itself does not necessarily mean the message itself is right or wrong.