The Secret of Trump’s Charisma

Many people all over the world wonder what it is about U.S. President Donald Trump that gives him such a powerful charisma in the eyes of his millions of followers. What was it about an old, overweight, unattractive, ignorant liar and crook, as his niece Mary Lea Trump made it clear it in her recent book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Produced the World’s Most Dangerous Man, that made nearly sixty-three million Americans admire Donald Trump, worship him, and cause him to be elected to the world’s most powerful political office four years ago?

It seems that charisma is not a quality inherent in the character or personality of the political leader, as Max Weber believed, and as people tend to think, but is rather in the eye of the beholder. In other words, the followers unconsciously endow their leader with charisma, idealize him, and do not see as he really is, but rather as they need and wish him to be. To his followers, admirers and voters, Donald Trump was, and for some of them he still is, the epitome of courage and outstanding leadership. He would “make America great again” and lead them out of their misery to wealth and well-being. He would rid America of “evil” people who wish to harm it and make his followers the lords of the land. In the words of the Austrian-born American Jewish psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, the “ideal hungry” followers fit the needs of the “mirror hungry” leader.


The “Ingredients” of Charisma

In 1973 the American-born Canadian Jewish psychoanalyst Irvine Schiffer published a slim but important volume entitled Charisma: A Psychoanalytic Look at Mass Society. Schiffer thought that one of the key “ingredients” of a leader’s charisma was a subtle combination of masculine and feminine traits that evokes deep longings to their early mother in the unconscious minds of his followers. Schiffer studied the relation of a leader’s charisma to his narcissism, and of charismatic leadership to the infantile longings of his followers. Schiffer found that charisma was not a quality inherent in the charismatic leader but rather one with which he is unconsciously endowed by his followers. Among the psychological “ingredients” that made immature or needy followers attribute charisma to their leader, Schiffer found, were his foreignness, his imperfection, his feeling of calling, his fighting stance, his social station, his sexual mystique, his perpetrating a hoax, and his innovative lifestyles.

These traits unconsciously revive powerful early-life emotions in his immature followers of longing, fear, and idealization, dating back to their infancy, which they have not outgrown, and which Schiffer explained.
The unconscious processes that underline this attribution of charisma to the leader come from the followers’ unremembered early lives. The Austrian-born British Jewish psychoanalyst Melanie Klein thought that during the first year of each person’s life, as an infant, he or she is totally dependent on the mother or mothering figure and is in a state of symbiosis or fusion with it. The infant only has sensations; it does not have thoughts or feelings. It does not sense any clear boundaries of itself. To the infant the body of the mothering figure is part of itself. During the process of separation and individuation, described by the psychoanalysts Margaret Mahler and Anni Bergman in The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant of 1975, the infant only gradually experiences its mother’s body as separate from itself. During that phase the mother’s body is partly familiar and partly foreign, partly feminine and partly masculine, and the infant does not sense it as fully maternal and feminine, as the child does later.

These very early sensations are later repressed and we no longer remember them as adults. However, they continue to operate in our unconscious minds. The more mature the person is, the less these early experiences affect his or her adult behavior. The less mature, immature or regressed a person is, however, the more these early sensations, and the subsequent feelings and experiences during the individuation phase, become a major unconscious force in his or her life. These early experiences can become traumatic when the mothering figure is unable to let go and to facilitate the separation-individuation process of her infant. This occurs when the mother herself feels abandoned by her baby when he tries to separate from her and to establish his own self. The trans-generational transmission of symbiotic relationships takes place when the mother herself has not succeeded in her own individuation and separation from her own mother as an infant, due to her own mother’s emotional issues.

All of the “ingredients of charisma” outlined by Schiffer five decades ago characterize Donald Trump. His foreign wife is one of them, and so is the subtle mix of masculinity and femininity in Trump’s appearance and behavior. He is certainly imperfect, both physically and mentally. He fights constantly, as if his life’s motto were pugno, ergo sum (I fight, therefore I am). He comes from the moneyed aristocracy of New York society. He has had numerous love affairs, and dozens of women have accused him of sexual harassment and abuse. His chronic lying and cheating are a defining part of his character. So is his denial of reality. His lifestyle is innovative, in that he defies all traditions and all rules of social decorum, including the mandatory wearing of a facial mask during the coronavirus crisis, which helped him infect the people of Tulsa, Oklahoma, with the virus during his poorly-attended rally of June 19, 2020.


Trump’s Followers: Middle-Class Radicals or Lower-Class Conservatives?

In what may be an oversimplification, sociologists divide American society into a working class, a middle class and an upper class. The large African-American minority is not always included in this division. In the 1950s the American Jewish sociologist and political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset coined the term “working class authoritarianism” to describe the racist and conservative views of lower-class white Americans. In the 1970s his colleague Donald Warren coined the term “Middle American Radicals” to describe what “the radicalism of middle-class Americans.”

In 2015 Warren’s disciple John Judis published an article in the National Journal entitled “The Return of the Middle American Radical,” saying that Trump’s supporters had an ideology that was “neither conventionally liberal nor conventionally conservative, but instead revolved around an intense conviction that the middle class was under siege from above and below.” Judis thought that Trump’s followers were white populists and nationalists who believed they were “getting screwed both by the rich and by the minorities.” Like Warren, Judis thought that those “Middle American Radicals” were mostly middle-class people.

In late 2015, however, the American political scientist William Galston analyzed the demographic, social and economic data collected about Trump’s supporters and published an article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Trump Rides a Blue-Collar Wave.” Galston concluded that Trump’s admirers were mostly white working-class people. Galston wrote that ‘Trump is the staunchest champion of the white working class that American politics has seen in decades.’ In early 2016 Lipset’s disciple Jordan Michael Smith published an article in the online journal Democracy entitled “Who Are Trump’s Supporters?” Smith wrote, “they are not really Middle American Radicals. In fact, they are not middle class at all. Rather, they are working class.” He added that Trump’s fans were “far less likely to have a college degree than those partial to other Republican presidential candidates, and they also make less than $50,000 annually. In addition—and this really contradicts Judis’s theory—they describe themselves as ‘conservatives’ […] Trump is attracting as many conservatives as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Jeb Bush combined.”

Smith pointed out that “a white lower-educated supporter on the lower-income scale is not what we normally term middle-class: it’s more aptly called the working-class […] Combine their class with their self-declared conservatism and you have the people Lipset described.” Trump’s followers were “white trash,” Southern evangelists, racists, white supremacists, lower-class people with no higher education, and frustrated, angry people who are not happy with themselves. Such people are more likely to suffer from serious emotional problems, unsuccessful separation-individuation issues, unclear boundaries of the self, and a deep hunger for an idealized leader. They see in a lifelong liar and crook a great man who can “make America great again.”

Some observers have disputed the theory of Trump’s supporters being working-class people. Nate Silver found that “compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off.” Eric Sasson attributed Trump’s election as President to the votes of college-educated white people. Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu found that “during the primaries, Trump supporters were mostly affluent people.” Thomas Ogorzalek, Luisa Godinez Puig & Spencer Piston found that “support for Trump was strongest among the locally rich — that is, white voters with incomes that are high for their area, though not necessarily for the country as a whole.” Finally, Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, found that Trump has raised taxes for everyone but the wealthiest Americans. We must therefore take the theory of Trump’s working-class support with a grain of salt.

In the case of Trump and his followers, the needs of each party neatly fit those of the other. Trump is a malignant-narcissistic leader who suffers from a borderline personality disorder and is “mirror hungry,” meaning that he needs his sign-waving and cheering admirers to reflect his grandiose image of himself to him. His followers are regressed, “ideal hungry” people who need a “charismatic” leader whom they can idealize out of all proportion to reality. What Trump’s followers see in him is not the real Trump, whose psychologist niece has just called him “the world’s most dangerous man.” America to them is their idealized Great Good Mother and Trump is the best president America has ever had, the one who will “make her great again.”

Trump’s followers do not and cannot see his glaring failures and the catastrophes he has brought upon the U.S. during the four years of his rule. Their number, however, is dwindling as their fantasies hit the hard rock of reality, the millions of people infected with the coronavirus, the one hundred and forty thousand Americans dead from it, the many millions of unemployed Americans. The U.S. has a chance to survive the disasters Trump has inflicted on her if he loses the forthcoming election to Joe Biden.


The End: What Will Happen in November?

One of the big riddles we face is what Trump will do if he does lose the election in November. He is unable to bear public shame and humiliation. He has already gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent Russia’s ruler Vladimir Putin from publishing the compromising material that Putin reportedly has on him. Will Trump try to start a Third World War that will destroy all the human eyes that can see his shame, as the Biblical Samson did with his Philistine captors? Will he commit suicide, as Hitler did in 1945, to escape the unbearable pain of his humiliation?


This article was first published in The Time of Israel, July 17, 2020