Charismatic Leaders: Saviors or Devils?

Alan Zendell, November 18, 2020

Most people associate “charismatic” with “good” or “positive,” but the dictionary definition includes no such qualification. Charisma is simply an almost spiritual quality that enables its owner to influence and persuade, even mesmerize others. Charismatic leaders have been good and bad, inspirational and demonic. Consider this list, borrowed from a popular website: Napoleon Bonaparte, Fidel Castro, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela. I wonder why there are no women on the list.

I’ve never met anyone on that list, but I have felt the power and magnetism of people like them. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have the kind of charisma that allowed them to jump from relative obscurity, nationally, to the presidency on their first tries. It’s a powerful force. My wife and I met Clinton on two occasions. Each time, he shook our hands and looked into our eyes. We both felt an amazing energy flow through us. It was easy to imagine being convinced to do almost anything he asked. Being close to Obama was similar, but more uplifting. I felt his aura, his allure drawing me in. It would be easy to get lost in the feeling.

When Obama’s populist wave swept over the country, I wasn’t immediately on board. I felt his charisma, but it was the very fact that I felt it so viscerally that made me mistrust his words. I remained ambivalent on the sidelines, because aside from his magnetic attraction and his message of unity and inclusion, I had no idea who he was or how he might govern. John McCain was a good man, someone I could have accepted as a leader. It was Sarah Palin who overcame my resistance to Obama’s charisma. One look at her was enough.

Donald Trump has his own brand of charisma. It’s not the warm fuzzy kind exuded by Clinton and Obama, and it inspires entirely different kinds of people. It’s anger- and rage-based, more like the attraction of a cobra than a force for good; if we’ve learned anything, it’s that Trump is able to cast a powerful spell. Spewing hate and racism, bragging about having no moral center and no respect for laws or rules, he still managed to attract 73,000,000 voters, keeping his followers in tow like a corrupt evangelist. The good news is that Joe Biden’s gentle faith and empathy garnered 79,000,000 and counting, but it would be a serious mistake to discount the power and danger Trump’s appeal represents.

Trump is a snake in the grass. Like the serpent in the Garden, he seduces promising unrestricted personal freedom and riches, but neglects to mention they’re only available to those who march in lockstep with him. He behaves like the worst kind of tyrant, savaging and destroying everyone he perceives as an obstacle. His only currency is unqualified obedience and support. Everyone who questions him is a liar, a cheat, or a criminal. Only people who vote for him can submit their ballots without being intimidated or concerned that their vote might be nullified.

Trump’s success in 2016 may have simply been about none of his opponents in either party possessing any charisma at all. Combined with his uncanny ability to recognize weakness and vulnerability in other people, and his willingness to shamelessly pander for votes in the darkest places, he swept aside his opposition like an incoming tide washing away sand castles. In office, however, it was soon clear that under his veneer of nativist charm was a darkness that was truly a threat to the nation. We learned that there is a huge difference between being a president and just playing one on TV. Charisma makes us want to believe a candidate will be a spiritual leader, but he could just as well be an emissary of the Dark Side

The part of Trump’s base that remains in his thrall has shrunk, but it’s still formidable. They buy everything that comes out of his mouth for reasons that many of us find unfathomable, but that makes them no less dangerous. Whether or not Trump ever concedes defeat, his attempt to hold on to power by any means necessary can irreparably damage our way of life.

Like any would-be tyrant, Trump would be nothing without his cheering crowds. If we’re going to fix the divisions he has exposed, we need to cut through his emotional appeal and address his supporters. If we can figure out exactly what they see in him, if we understand what generates their anger and frustration, maybe we can begin to heal.

Uncharismatic, low-keyed Joe Biden may be just the leader who can accomplish that.

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1 Response to Charismatic Leaders: Saviors or Devils?

  1. William Kiehl says:

    FDR had charisma, which was wonderful. Unfortunately, Hitler also had charisma. Not so good.

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