THR Blog   /   February 4, 2021

Dare We Call It Charisma?

Trump mastered the trick that only the most gifted demagogues can bring off.

Mark Edmundson

( President Trump does his “dad-dance” at a 2020 rally; AP photo.)

Will Trump be back? I hope not. And circumstances may make his return impossible. Yet the man can’t be counted out. He has the energy, the anger (he hates being a “loser”), and a large and worshipful following. He also possesses a certain power that is both rare and, if not new in history, still poorly understood. Trump is to many a charismatic leader, of an extremely uncommon sort. His rare kind of charisma—which the philosopher Hannah Arendt would judge more “gift of the gutter” than “gift of the gods”—makes his re-emergence on the public stage likely indeed.

Whatever his gift is called, Trump is something of a mesmerist, as my colleague Emily Ogden pointed out in a New York Times essay. He—and it is always a he—is able to move people, especially people in groups, from the usual state of consciousness to another sort. The hypnotist creates an attitude of acquiescence among his followers. Because of his presence they assent, sometimes quietly, sometimes vociferously, to whatever is going on. Their judgment is, if not completely annulled, then at least put in abeyance. They accept what is happening. They are taken up in the moment, and going with the moment provides—above all, perhaps—a sense of belonging to a crowd of others who are equally enchanted. In the crowd, the individuals lose their power of judgment—or gradually relinquish it—and as a result feel lighter, freer. In effect, they transfer their power of judgment to the leader and they feel relieved and easy. After all, judgment is work—judging complicates experience. If you don’t have to judge matters and can simply accept whatever is going on, the burden of dealing with your individual cares and worries is lightened, even temporarily lifted.

We all know something about how hypnotism works. We know it allows the hypnotized individual to suspend will and judgment and relax into pure acceptance. In his book, On Drugs, the late comparative literature scholar David Lenson speaks of drugs that simply second whatever is going on, pot being one of them. Hypnotism creates the same effect. It induces one to say yes to what’s happening. Not all are susceptible to its power, but clearly many are. 

How does someone achieve the hypnotic effect? Why can some people do it and others not?

Hypnotism takes place first through the medium of the voice. Trump has, to some ears, a rather soothing one. It can be smooth, agreeable, even honeyed and can—the fiction writer Lorrie Moore, a Trump detractor, had the wherewithal to admit this—produce a sense of security. Hypnotism also takes place through the medium of the gaze. Trump’s is firm, steady, unapologetic, and sometimes piercing. “He holds him with his glittering eye, / The Wedding-Guest stood still / And listens like a three years’ child: / The Mariner hath his will.” That’s Coleridge, writing about an archetypal hypnotist, the Ancient Mariner. Trump’s got that: the look, the gaze—perfected by staring down and dismissing so many contestants on The Apprentice. He deploys it at in-person meetings and with crowds. The voice says, “I’m here, I’m calm, I’m in control, don’t worry.” The gaze pierces the individual. It signals, “I know you, I get you, I understand who you are and what you’re feeling. I’m here.”

But vocal timbre and a penetrating gaze are not enough. Many who possess both are not hypnotists or mesmeric authorities. They can’t control crowds. Appearances don’t count for everything, but they matter in the game of status, and Trump has a consuming interest in—indeed, an obsession with—status and its symbols and its “hidden injuries,” having grown up in an emotionally barren world in which outward signs of success counted for everything. Yet—and here is the paradox and possibly the engine of his restless ambition—though he struggled most of his adult life to be accepted by the smart set, Trump never quite made it, never fully arrived. He was always too brassy and tasteless, too crass and boastful (but, also, so very needy at bottom) to be accepted as one of the smoothly assured and knowing Manhattan elite. Snubbed (and lastingly resentful of the elite he still tries to impress), he learned to play to the outer boroughs, where the real working people lived and where his brand of “classy” worked better. Much better. Just as it would when he brought his act to reality TV, training his “apprentices” to be as bold and brassy as he was.

Trump, after all, was large and imposing—an alpha presence. His hair was golden like a crown—even after it thinned and grayed and had to be coiffed and colored. Then, there was that golden tan! He always surrounded himself with gold—that was part of his pseudo-aristocratic allure, along with the faux neoclassical columns that rose implausibly in his Manhattan penthouse suite. And of course his wives were to be queenly—those high heels, all day; that elegant couture—none more than the last. Melania was beautiful in a feline, lacquered way—with a look that says, “Stay Back, I’m special, I’m a queen.” Even a cat can look at a king, said D. H. Lawrence. I doubt a cat would have the nerve to hold this queen’s eye for too long. So Donald and his queen created a regal picture—if regal pictures are your delight.

And for very many, quite clearly, they are. Mark Twain, who made a living understanding us purported lovers of democracy better than we understand ourselves, says we all pine for aristocracy. We hunger to be ruled by kings and dukes. He tells us as much in his autobiography: “It is a saddening thought but we cannot change our nature—we are all alike, we human beings; and in our blood and bone, and ineradicable, we carry the seeds out of which monarchies and aristocracies are grown: worship of gauds, titles, distinction, power. We have to worship these things and their possessors, we are all born so, and we cannot help it. We have to be despised by somebody whom we regard as above us, or we are not happy, we have to have somebody to worship and envy or we cannot be content.” Twain makes merry fun of royalty through all his work, but ultimately he felt we would succumb to its allure. Democracy is just too damned drab. So smuggling the aristocratic trappings into democracy is surely part of the Trumpian allure. There are the blue suits, well-made despite their billowing expanses of shrouding cloth; the red ties, always long enough to de-emphasize the bulging gut; the outfit more or less the same every day. Has anyone ever seen Trump lounging in a sport shirt? He’s always dressed for battle. In the suit. You can find a photo of him playing golf, but surely he does not care for those shots, especially when they accentuate his belly and bottom.

The gaze, the voice, the martial and military presentation of self, the aristocratic mien, the wealth (or presumed wealth)—all of these qualities matter.  Still, many people have them and lack what Trump possesses. What is that? For answers, we need to turn from Twain to one of his admirers, Sigmund Freud, who speculated brilliantly on leaders and their charisma in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.

Trump presents himself as utterly free. No one tells him what to do. No one thinks his thoughts for him. People may advise him or not, but ultimately he does what he wishes. The sight of an individual we perceive as truly free is always mesmerizing. His thoughts are his own. He thinks as he does and he believes his own thoughts. So to some he possesses the kind of magnetism that Emerson in “Self-Reliance” suggests that all who think independently possess. An independent mind can be magnetic, so long as it thinks the right thoughts—that is, thoughts latent in the minds of his hearers. Like his coeval Rush Limbaugh, Trump is also a master of innuendo—he doesn’t say “Storm the Capitol” in so many words; he speaks with both authority and indirection. We have to fight, fight, fight. His audience completes his thoughts and makes them their own. As Voltaire says, there’s no one so boring as the man who tells you everything. Something must be withheld so the rapt auditor can complete the exchange and make the sentiments his own.

So the mesmerizing leader is free in his mind, or at least he appears to be. He tells it like it is, his fans say. He shoots from the hip. His will, as Freud says of the primal father’s, needs no reinforcement from others. He makes his plans—or has his impulses—and he acts upon them. He is spontaneous; anything else is artificial and fraudulent. His attacks on women—“grab ’em by the pussy”—contribute to his reputation for willful spontaneity. Do what you want! Take what you like! Following Freud, we draw closer to the heart of the mesmerizing leader, but there is farther to go.

The essential ingredient, according to the Maestro of Vienna, is the relationship between the mesmeric leader and the crowd, and it is the ability to orchestrate it that sets the true hypnotic leader apart from aspirants. What kind of rapport does the leader strike with the crowd? Freud is direct and rather brilliant on this. He tells us that the hypnotist must provide his followers with the illusion that all are “equally and justly loved by their leader.” Yes, clearly. But then the next step: The leader for his part need love no one; he must be of a “masterful nature, absolutely narcissistic, self-confident, and independent.” You maintain Trump’s sort of stance—the possession of a unified being—by not loving anyone but yourself. So you come off looking completely powerful and self-reliant. You need no one. On the campaign trail, Trump was able to sustain a measure of dignitas while dad-dancing to the Village People’s “YMCA.” Not an easy stunt.

Very well. We’ve all met such people. But the trick to being the hypnotic leader is even more complicated. While loving yourself deeply and exclusively, you also have to provide the illusion that you love your followers individually. The problem with narcissists is rather simple. At the start, their company is exhilarating. You want to be with them, because they live with such intensity and confidence, and you feel that they might pass these qualities on. Just being with them is an intoxicant. You feel that the rules don’t apply to them, and when you’re with them, they don’t apply to you, either. In time, however, you begin to see that the narcissist cares nothing for you, and you become disillusioned and sad. You want nothing to do with your former friend. You see that he was just using you as an audience—as a flattering mirror. It’s what happens when an everyday person somehow becomes friends with a Hollywood star. Great at the beginning—parties and swag bags and photo ops—but the adoring fan is soon bereft. So the hypnotic leader has a very tough task, sustaining his narcissism while simultaneously preventing the moment of disillusionment from arriving. How does he bring it off?

The power lies in a trick that only the most gifted demagogues can bring off. Trump did—and he may well pull it off again. When you are presenting yourself in public, you have to be two-tracking in your mind. You have to maintain full self-command: You need no one; you are whole and perfect in yourself. At the same time, you have to be able to enter a silent dialogue with the crowd to see what really moves them, what really matters to them.

Trump’s campaign took off when he made his initial remarks about immigration, a subject no other candidate was terribly concerned with. When Trump declared for the presidency he spoke his famous line about how Mexico was sending us its rapists and criminals. The line exhilarated some people, and his campaign ignited. Trump was canny enough to see and feel the effect this issue had. Most narcissists have no idea how they are coming off. They are so self-enclosed that they are oblivious to when they are wounding people and when they’re salving wounds.

Trump can maintain full self-possession, and at the same time he can sense what his audience feels and wants. Hitler said that in his speeches he made love to the German people—and he did, telling them what they wanted to hear while maintaining his self-confidence and self-enclosure. Trump is no Hitler. But he shares that power. He can maintain unity of being, give nothing away, yet at the same time be open enough to read his crowd. Usually someone so self-enclosed cannot achieve this level of communication.

Good stand-up comics excel at reading their audiences—from Bob Hope to John Mulaney and beyond. They know when to push a joke further and when to put on the brakes. They are brilliantly attuned. But you also sense how their openness creates vulnerability. The crowd’s disapproval wounds them, badly. No accident that so many end up in rehab or worse: Remember Freddie Prinz, Robin Williams, John Belushi, and the brilliantly tragic Lenny Bruce. You can feel most comics virtually begging for your approval—for your laughter. A few, like Rodney Dangerfield, just come at you like a steam roller, apparently impervious. But not most of them. Trump has a stand-up comic’s level of rapport with his audience, even while he maintains his narcissistic remove.

People say that Trump used his rallies to plump his ego. True enough. But the live appearances also gave him the chance to experiment with thoughts, phrases, ideas, intonations. They were his laboratory, providing places to try out his game in the way that stiff, overly scripted TV presentations could not. Learning from and feeding off his interactions with live crowds, he would then blast out his thoughts and feelings in tweets or the occasional TV appearance, particularly if the latter was with the friendly gang at Fox.

This ability to feed off the crowd while maintaining regal authority is a rare power. Most speakers try to please the crowd and in so doing lose some of their authoritative aura. Or they try to come off as unquestionable authorities and alienate people with their arrogance. Trump achieved both goals at once. In a highly advanced form, he exercised the very uncommon gift of the most alluring fascist leader.

Yet he was not a true fascist. He was not, for one, a militarist—quite the opposite—even though he loved parades and uniforms and the trappings of martial glory. Nor was he a totalitarian, seeking to subject every aspect of life to government control. And though he might have preferred one-man rule, he was unwilling to work hard enough to get and sustain it. Trump was something of genius at creating the illusion of tremendous activity and accomplishment, but he was never a prodigious worker in the way that Stalin and Hitler were.

Trump, to be sure, is a nationalist, though of a rather soft variety, preferring economic dominance over military might. As for race and ethnicity, Trump’s message unquestionably landed best with white people, some of whom were thrilled by the occasional coded racist slurs. But his message also resonated with some blacks and not a few Hispanics. Trump’s appeal to many Jews—indeed to the vast majority of Israelis—put him at a far remove from German fascists of the last century. While mastering the techniques of the fascist leader, Trump promoted policies that were usually mainstream conservative, right-wing at worst, and to say that many were disastrous in their effects—whether on human beings or the natural world—hardly proves that they were the work of a fascist.

Yet the style of a national leader is far from inconsequential, and nothing revealed the danger Trump posed to the republic more powerfully than his manner of leaving the office. It was precisely in his resistance to accepting defeat that his neediness revealed itself not just in his grasping ambition or his genius for manipulation but also in his utter lack of conscience, honesty, or responsibility. We should have recognized the danger long before then. But that so many Americans remain mesmerized by the show might make us wonder how long before we get a fascist in full and not just the antic appearance of one.