I’ve been as surprised as anyone to watch Donald Trump ascend from sideshow to Republican primary steamroller. There have been a lot of narratives advanced about the unexpected Trump phenomenon: it’s because of his TV experience. It’s because he’s a fascist. It’s because he’s a demagogue. It’s because he doesn’t care about the results of what he says. It’s because he appeals to people’s pack-follower authoritarian streak. It’s because he appeals to racists.
This morning it occurred to me that it might be simpler than all that. Trump might be succeeding simply because he’s the only candidate in the entire field with even a tiny shred of charisma.
Sure, it’s a boorish, ugly charisma. But if you’ve ever rooted for Sylvester Stallone in literally any of his movies, then you can understand the appeal.
Consider the rest of the field:
- Cruz is widely considered to be one of the least-likable people ever to walk the face of the earth.
- Rubio is such a robotic empty suit that he sometimes gets stuck in a loop.
- Kasich seems like a nice guy to have over for dinner, and that’s about as far as it goes.
- Christie, Bush, Carson… none of them rolled better than a 2 on their CHR attribute.
Against this backdrop, a golden retriever holding a picture of a bald eagle would probably have fared just as well as Trump has.
Charisma explains a lot about the Democratic side of things as well. In 2008, Clinton should have had the nomination locked up. Especially compared to a relative unknown like Obama. But he had charisma coming out his ears, and Clinton… not so much.
Now it’s 2016, and she and Sanders are evenly matched in the Charisma department (because zero is equal to zero). It should be no surprise then that with her greater recognition, drive, and establishment support, she’s pulling ahead.
I doubt even Clinton supporters are going to argue with me about her lack in the charisma department. I do expect that Sanders fans will have a bone to pick with me about my assessment of him.
I’m sorry, but Sanders is simply not a charismatic man. He’s an angry scold. If you are angry about the same things, then his speeches will resonate with you. But resonance is not the same thing as charisma. Between a pragmatic-minded policy wonk like Clinton, and the uncle you wish would shut up and let you eat Thanksgiving dinner in peace, there is no charisma advantage in the Democratic race.
I don’t know what this means for the general. Trump still has some seemingly insurmountable demographic hurdles to get over in order to have a chance of winning. But he’s shown already that charisma pitted against the absence thereof can accomplish miraculous feats. It’s worrisome.