What is ‘charisma’? I ask the question seriously. Like a lot of terms (see ‘populism’), the word seems to be in constant flux. In her UnHerd article, Elizabeth Oldfield demonstrated how, in its present usage, ‘charisma’ has come almost completely loose from its roots. It’s now little more than a way of signifying ‘a prominent person who I like’.
One of the most interesting twists in the term’s recent history is not its misuse, however, but the fact that it has finally fallen out of favour. Until very recently, in most democratic countries, ‘charisma’ was thought to be one of the most – if not the absolute most – important quality for any leader to have. John Major was derided for not having it. Bill Clinton was admired for his. Tony Blair possessed it in droves, while the same was rarely said of Iain Duncan Smith. Winners and losers were pretty much determined based on their ‘charisma’.
Charisma will only get you so far
Even as this state of affairs proceeded, there were clear problems with it. The first was that charisma is largely in the eye of the beholder. Plenty of people attested to John Major’s, on meeting him. Others claimed that the former French President, François Hollande – often mocked for his lack of allure – had the fabled quality in spades.
Another problem is that ‘charisma’ can be faked. Or at least created. Once somebody holds any form of power they immediately become slightly more interesting and important. Once they start walking into rooms surrounded by retinues of bag-carriers and security officers, the illusion is almost complete. If you are the centre of attention in most rooms you are in, you are almost inevitably going to be described as having some form of charisma.
Oldfield describes charisma as something that mattered because it was seen as a unifying force. Which is perhaps why Barack Obama was so frequently described as charismatic. Not just because he was an excellent public speaker, but because he genuinely did seem – for a time at least – to have the power to bring people together, and unify them around some ideals, even if only the most broad and ill-defined.
The dangers of post-truth journalism
But then came Donald Trump, who appears to have helped kill off – among much else – this obsession with charisma. By any ordinary analysis, Trump must count as one of the most successful figures in American history. A man who made a fortune, lost it, made it again, became a household name and then won the Presidency on the first occasion he ran for it.
Normally, this sort of achievement that would cause people to wheel out all sorts of hyperbole – including the magical charismatic virtue. But no discussion of Trump has ever mentioned the term. Perhaps that’s because many people have no desire to be caught praising the man. Or perhaps his divisiveness means he couldn’t possibly possess the crucial uniting quality that ‘charisma’ demands. For whatever reason, Trump didn’t warrant the charismatic epithet – neither in terms of lacking it or exuding it. And, in turn, no one is seeking the virtue in the Democrats who are hoping to run against him.
It is in Britain, though, that we can see the real reason why the charisma obsession has taken a break. Tony Blair take a bow. Just look at the current leader of the Labour Party. There are few people who met Corbyn in his wilderness years who observed any charismatic qualities.
And that is the point. Momentum, among other Labour Party movements, have recently been strongly pushing their line that their party’s real enemy was always Tony Blair – and that the man who led them to three successive general election victories is precisely the sort of figure of whom the party now has no need.
People on both the Right and the Left who dislike Blair can, and do, make the argument that the problem of the Blair years is that the country was suckered by an unusually charismatic figure who then led everyone (Left and Right) in the wrong direction. If charisma can lead to the catastrophe of Blairism, then perhaps it makes anything possible; in future, it’ll be best to remain suspicious of anything which may lead to a repeat.
Who broke the Left?
This suggests that the side-lining of charisma is caused not by a misunderstanding of a term, but simply by disillusionment with the quality as we had come to view it. Disillusionment caused by over-promises and the missteps of ‘charismatic’ people, and a growing scepticism among the voting publics of people alleged to have such magical qualities.
And so the key qualities politicians must be seen to possess have shifted accordingly. In the race to lead the Conservative party, nobody has felt impelled to make claims about the vast charisma emanating daily from Jeremy Hunt. There have been few attempts to pretend that when Matt Hancock enters a room, nobody can take their eyes off him. Of those who might end up leading the party, Michael Gove is majoring on the fact that he has been a smart and successful minister who mastered a range of portfolios. Sajid Javid is running in part because his backstory would demonstrate a ‘diverse’ candidate for the Tory party. Rory Stewart is running on the fact that he is quirky and strange. On it goes.
Even in the case of the front-runner, Boris Johnson, the argument for his appeal is not that he is ‘charismatic’ per se but that he is simply the biggest beast in the jungle, and that the biggest beast at some point ought to be allowed to run the jungle. His campaign launch rested on his seriousness and appeal, without reference to any magic qualities. His appearances before potential voters so far in this race have actually focused on his apparent meekness and mildness, as though he were trying to slip through without people making any special claims about him.
So perhaps it is over – this quest for a much-vaunted if hard-to-define quality. If so then it should not be much lamented. It was always too imprecise a quality to take on the load it ended up bearing. But its absence does leaves us with a serious follow-on challenge: what qualities do we actually want in our politicians? We thought we wanted charisma. It turns out we want something else. But what? Perhaps it’s an entirely new breed of politician.