Donald Trump’s chances for re-election look good, but I do wonder whether he’s quite the charismatic force of nature that he was in 2016.
It’s not just Donald Trump, either. In 2008, Barack Obama was every bit a storm of charisma. Just look at this rally from back then.
Now look at him 10 years later. Contrast his 2008 self with his ineffectual 2018 tour, where hectoring was the rule of thumb. The decline is painful to watch.
All of this has made me wonder – is charisma changeable? Are there fluctuations up and down, according to age, experience, circumstance, and training? Or is it, as others believe, an innate quality of character?
This is a question worth asking, because if charisma changes with time, we can acquire more of it, and alternatively, we have to be on guard to make sure we don’t lose it. If it doesn’t change, and we’re basically stuck with our lot, then we can coast if we’re blessed with charisma, and lament our doom if we aren’t.
The example of Barack Obama above strongly suggests that charisma is variable. Bill Clinton’s career shows an even starker contrast between a man at his peak and a man in sad decline.
Some people display a remarkable consistency when it comes to charisma. Donald Trump might not quite be at his peak like in 2015-16, but if he has declined, it hasn’t been by too much, and his 73 year old self is remarkably consistent with how he was when he first achieved notoriety in the 1980s.
The Example of the Ancients
We can look back further in time to see how charisma plays out in the careers of historical figures. From his nondescript youth to the abrupt end of his career, Julius Caesar displayed a remarkable charismatic consistency. Even before he had accomplished anything, Caesar captured attention wherever he went, from the way he dressed to his style of speech. Without much status, he was seducing the wives of aristocrats. He influenced many other kinds of people besides. His charisma was such that he nearly persuaded the Senate not to execute those implicated in Catiline’s conspiracy and, obviously, he persuaded his army to revolt against the Republic. That certainly fits the description of: “a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure.”
On the other hand, we have the career of Marius, who once roused Rome to action against its corrupt elites in the Jugurthine War, and then saved it from the threat of migrating tribes in the north, winning the acclaim of the people. By the end of his career, however, Marius had become an envious, grumpy old man who allied himself with Cinna to take power in Rome and rule by mob. In the words of Adrian Goldsworthy in In The Name of Rome:
Marius in his later years was a selfish, vindictive, and at times also pathetic figure, who plunged the Republic into the first of the civil wars which would in time destroy it. Little seemed left of the genuine talent which had won him his unprecedented string of consulships and brought him victory over the Cimbri and Teutones.
The career of Elizabeth I also provides some clues about the fluctuating nature of charisma. The most charismatic personality of the 16th century, Elizabeth expertly created a persona and propaganda machine that won her the love of her people. This reached its apogee in 1588, when the queen rallied her troops against the Spanish Armada at Tilbury.
Yet, after the Armada, Elizabeth seemed to have passed her peak. England was hit with a storm of hardship in the 1590s and the queen granted unpopular monopolies to personal favorites. Usually, these were just the men that flattered her best, the most notorious being Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. To the general public, it seemed like the queen was trying to recapture her lost youth at their expense. Elizabeth’s Virgin Queen persona was showing its age, literally. Elizabeth hadn’t changed with the times.
The queen still had her charm, as her 1601 Golden Speech attests, but her charisma had clearly waned.
Professional wrestling offers some of the clearest insights on the nature of charisma, because personas are live tested in front of an audience. You get immediate feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. You can also see how different performers change over the years.
The Rock is one of the most charismatic people I have ever seen. He has stayed as such throughout the 20 or so years that I’ve been watching him throughout his career as a professional wrestler and then an actor.
And yet, he began his career like this.
It was a flop, to say the least. Then he became a bad guy and turned into this:
The thumbnail is fun (I put this particular video here to keep you focused), but pay more attention to The Rock. Notice not only his manner of speech, but his movements. It’s a night and day difference from his previous persona.
It was much the same story with Stone Cold Steve Austin, who began his career in WWE as The Ringmaster.
Unsurprisingly, it bombed. Two years later, he was doing this:
The careers of all of these individuals lend credence to the idea that charisma fluctuates with time, circumstance, training, experience, and so on.
In other words you can have it and you can lose it all the same. Professors at Yale have mentioned the unstable nature of “charismatic authority,” and certain charismatic behaviors have been studied at other universities, showing that they can be replicated.
Charisma is most like genetics. Certain people are more naturally charismatic than others – they have better starting and ending points. Yet, everyone can gain or lose it according to time and circumstance.
Stumped’s fourth chapter deals with charisma. Get it so you can know how to improve.