The phenomenon of Donald Trump, his meteoric rise in the Republican halls of fame, has many reasons. Rage against the establishment, White Man’s fears, lower class economic distress and more. But I believe we cannot fully understand the massive support for the man if we fail to notice one major dimension thereof, which constitutes the source of his unique charisma.
Let me put it this way: Trump is a postmodern god.
Of course, he is very rich and can therefore do as he wishes and supposedly doesn’t need to take anyone else’s wishes and opinions into consideration. That’s true, but the issue runs deeper. As a god, Trump must be not only omnipotent, but also distant and invulnerable. As a postmodern god, that distance and immunity must come against a backdrop of his breaking the rules, his being an ubermensch who undermines conventions. And just as important, from within that distance, the postmodern god must convey emotion, warmth.
To be sure, Trump excels at undermining conventions. He says whatever he likes, be it defamatory, racist, ridicule or dirty words that no candidate has ever dared use. Equally important, he is defiantly not conforming to the conventions of standard Republican conservatism. The fact that he is not a classic conservative (used to be a Democrat, was pro-choice, pro-government intervention in property and so on) helps him in that regard because it magnifies his otherness, and thus the perception that he’s not one of us. He’s superior.
But all this would not have been enough had it not been for Trump’s ability to project authenticity. This is achieved in a postmodern society by full equation between inside and outside, by breaking down the barrier between the subjective and the objective. Trump, as is well known, says anything that comes to his head at any given moment. He hides nothing. What you see is what you get. Not only that, but he is shameless. He has no internal space separate from the external, that could supposedly have reservations about whatever is going on outside.
Trump is a moving display of spontaneity and directness, with no judgment, planning or hesitation. Therefore, he cannot be considered “fake” or “phony” (the cardinal sins of our time). His heart is open, and even if it is ugly, it’s not its content but the gesture of revealing it that matters to his admirers. Even if he says harsh things, to their mind he hides nothing from them, he is authentic, and that is the matters.
And yet, Trump doesn’t blow his top, doesn’t lose control, doesn’t fume, doesn’t cry, and doesn’t scream. He’s cool. In other words, he’s immune. He’s warm, and yet distant. He speaks from the heart and to the heart, and yet is invulnerable. American sociologist Richard Sennett noticed back in the 1970’s that this is how public attraction to a leader is built nowadays. “Controlled spontaneity,” he claimed, arouses sympathy and admiration in us, and the feeling that the person in front of us can be believed. This is what postmodern charisma means.
People believe in a pre-modern god. They have faith in a postmodern god. This trust is bestowed not because the things the god says are logical and not because his political plans are sound. Their trust is given because he, as said above, projects reliability, that is to say, authenticity. In this regard Trump brings our tendency to prefer form to content to a peak: his credibility stems from the way he expresses himself, not from what his expressions mean.
It’s fun to watch a post-modern god. His audience doesn’t want to be his friend – obviously such a man has no real friends – his audience wants to be his audience. Since the show must go on, the audience will vote for him. The way to stop him is not to tell his audience that he is evil (“Hitler”), that is by turning him into a devil (for there is no difference in form between a devil and a god). The way to stop him is by turning him into a man. This can be accomplished by making him lose his composure, by humiliating him. The Republican party has very little time to manage this.
Published in Hebrew in Haaretz