Negative Charisma

Perhaps one of the downside of republican governments is that their politics are dependent on charismatic politicians. Rule in republics is by the consent of the ruled (rather than by e.g. force, as in a dictatorship, or heredity, as in a monarchy), and every republican system — both historic and modern — has a periodic reaffirmation of that consent. This is an excessively technical and theoretical way of talking about elections.

Politicians depend on charisma to get elected and re-elected. An uncharismatic politician will never be able to convert oratory into votes. And charisma is not a learned skill: there is a distinct difference between naturally charismatic people and people who have learned to mimic naturally charismatic people. However, at the same time, all charismatic people — by simple dint of standing out in the crowd — will win both adorers and adversaries. In republics, having enough adorers to cancel out adversaries and then some is what gets you elected.

In 2007, the Huffington Post published an opinion piece suggesting that Hillary Clinton has “negative charisma”, in the sense that she has the opposite of charisma. He is right: Hillary is not exactly charismatic. She runs tough elections but is consistently highly rated once in office. For her, elections are — for all intents and purposes — a tedious chore to get through before returning to the real business of government, i.e. governing. She has largely succeeded so far by more skillfully mimicking naturally charismatic people than nearly anybody else in existence. But she is not naturally charismatic.

This is not, however, the sense I have in mind when I suggest “negative charisma”. If the positive effect of charisma is an innate ability to win friends and influence people, then the negative effect of charisma is an innate ability to win enemies and influence people. That is, a negatively charismatic person is someone whose natural charisma acts to their detriment rather than to their benefit. A negatively charismatic person is inherently, deeply self-sabotaging.

Donald Trump Is Negatively Charismatic

While the Constitution outlines the bare minimum to be qualified for the Presidency — according to Article II, a President must be a natural-born U.S. citizen, at least thirty-five years old, and an American resident for at least the past fourteen years — in practice we also expect our Presidents to have significant political experience, the ability to fund a campaign, and the charisma needed to win. Governors and Senators most frequently win major-party nominations for this reason. They fulfill both the implicit and explicit skillset needed for winning the Presidency, having successfully run for — and held — statewide office.

Obviously the septuagenarian New York-born Trump, who has held primary residency in Trump Tower’s penthouse suite for about as long as I’ve been alive, fulfills the Constitution’s explicit requirements. He does not fulfill the usual implicit requirements. He has never held public office — nor did he ever seek to prior to announcing his candidacy. CEO of an ostensibly real-estate company and media personality, he has never demonstrated the ability to hold public office of any sort, much less the most public public office in the US. Most “candidates” like him go away quickly, and if he was — indeed — running as a publicity stunt for his brand (as most in the media seem to think), he had no reason to expect the course of his candidacy to run any differently.

Something different happened. By tapping a regressive-populist core and running against a monumentally divided field, Trump was already galloping towards the nomination by the time Ted Cruz was able to mount a counterattack. It wasn’t enough. And so the Republican establishment, the whole infrastructure built around the declining Reagan coalition, had to grit its teeth and nominate someone who had — remember, with zero experience — developed an Appalachian coalition with extensions into the Old South’s unreconstructed whites and North’s undereducated ex-workforce. Of these, only one voting block was even R when Reagan was President.

This is evidence of powerful natural charisma. But for the negatively charismatic, the self-sabotage kicks in long before the ultimate goal is reached. And it’s inextricably linked to their personality. See, charisma requires treating other people as people to work. Outside of other white males, Trump can’t do that. He has repeatedly demonstrated failure to connect to people emotionally — a recent New York Times opinion piece suggests he has “narcissistic alexithymia” (not an easy-to-spell word!), an “inability to understand or describe the emotions in the self”. And so Trump treats people who do not look like him like, well, objects.

Consider the way he keeps referring to African-Americans as “the blacks”. Not just “blacks”. The blacks. Consider what he is saying, at a deep level. The English definite article is a subtle demonstrative — it points out. It selects an object, or class of objects. Not “some blacks”. “The blacks.” In doing so, Trump is quite literally distancing himself from black people. He is saying, implicitly, that he does not, at a fundamental level, consider black people, well, people — English actually has (at least) two noun classes, and the class that refers to other people behaves quite differently than the one that refers to (inanimate?) objects like, say, rocks. Trump refers to African-Americans more like rocks than people, and in so doing, casts a noun-class distinction that we never realized was there into stark distinction.

At least he refers to women as people! It’s too bad his interest in them begins and ends with their appearance and genitalia. In Trump’s own little world, we can see a clear class progression, with white males at the top of the hierarchy, white females are naturally inferior but useful for *cough* certain tasks *cough*, and nonwhites — who might as well not even be human. This is fertile ground for rapidly building a populist coalition, one that may well only hold together as long as he’s leading them, but it flies in the face of the reality that is American demographics.

This is how charisma turns toxic. Real estate development was — and, in many ways, still is — a bit of an old boys’ club. Even a personality-driven show like The Apprentice can — and quite obviously did — mask elements of media personalities that would harm ratings. There is a reason why Trump is the world’s oldest adolescent. His dad was rich enough and he was just good enough a businessman to indulge in puerile power fantasies long past their natural sell-by date. His ephebophilia actually means his women, such as they are, are the ones with “sell-by dates”. Trump has never, in his life, ever needed to learn how to interact with other people as people and not mere tools.

Hillary is uncharismatic because she doesn’t intuitively know how to interact with other people as people. She knows this is important and works hard to overcome this weakness. But Trump has negative charisma because he does intuitively know how to interact with other people as people — what he does not see, or understand, is why it’s important. And it’s biting him in the ass.

EDIT 10/25: Note: I wrote this post just before Trump’s sex-assault allegations went public.


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