Charisma from the Crowd

October 28, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andrew Gelman had a brief speculative post (here) on the major criterion voters use in choosing a president. Are they looking for a savior or are they hiring someone to do a competent job? It would be hard to find better embodiments of these types than the current candidates, but for some reason, Gelman does not mention them. He sorts past presidents, and here’s the scorecard:

Saviors: Trump, Obama, Clinton, Reagan, Roosevelt

Hired to do or continue a job: Bush 2, Bush 1, Nixon, Johnson, Truman

I’m not quite sure how I’d characterize the other elected presidents from that era: Carter, Kennedy, Eisenhower.  
In case you hadn’t noticed, these categories match two of Weber’s types of authority — charismatic and rational-legal. But what determines the type of authority the president embodies? How much is the person, and how much lies in the circumstances of the historical moment?

In looking at Gelman’s line-up, which I pretty much agree with, it seems that the Saviors were elected when things had gone terribly wrong. They showed personal strength, but their charismatic authority lay not just in their personal qualities; it came from our need or desire for them to have charisma. We made them saviors because we needed them to save us from recent disasters. FDR, Reagan, and Obama followed economic crises. (The inflation of the late 70s was not exactly a crisis, but everyone felt it every time they bought something.) In addition, the Iraq war and the Iran hostage crisis were highly visible failures in foreign policy. (I’m less sure about Clinton. I don’t see him as being personally charismatic, nor was his election a reaction to a huge failure. We re-elected him more for the job he was doing than for the person he was.)

And then there’s Trump. His relation to his supporters is certainly charismatic. But what is he saving them from? Under Obama, the economy was steadily recovering, and there were no glaring foreign policy catastrophes. Social indicators — crime, abortion, teen pregnancy, drug use — were all going in the right direction. Trump insisted that everything about the Obama presidency — NAFTA, Obamacare —  was a “disaster,” but what moved his supporters was not the reform of policies on trade and health care. Instead, Trump is saving them from something less specific — the feeling that the position of dominance they had long taken for granted was slipping away. For years, “taking back our country” had been a theme in Republican politics (see my 2011 post Repo Men). Trump was the savior who would restore their glory days.

If Trump’s election in 2016 was all charisma and no crises, Biden in 2020 is the opposite, a man with no charisma in a time of crisis. His supporters might have preferred a candidate with more charisma, but they will be satisfied if they hire someone to do a competent job, someone who is not Trump.


DJL said...

Typo: "Trump insisted that everything about the Trump presidency": that second "Trump" should be "Obama".

Perhaps you need to mention that pretty much everything Trump says is false and his presidency is based on lies and exacerbating false stereotypes.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for the copy editing. As for Trump's lying, I believe the phrase is "it goes without saying."