Comments on Eli Zaretsky: Trump’s Charisma – LRB Blog by Wade McKenzie

"Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking."

I think the naivety of supposing that anyone--anyone at all--can at this juncture bring to pass "a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking" almost goes without saying--let alone that anyone in the current slate of Democratic candidates could perform such an Archimedean task. The sort of comprehensive transformation of "America’s way of thinking" that Mr. Zaretsky advocates presupposes a unitary something that is "America". "America" is irremediably divided against itself--ever-increasingly by rival ethnic and racial blocs, though no division surpasses that between the white bohemian bourgeoisie and the white working class.

"Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion."

Here the author evinces the flaw that vexes most contemporary political commentary; namely, the casual assumption that one's own political/ethno-racial faction is "America" simpliciter--in this case, the "progressive" white and Jewish bohemian bourgeoisie whose "self-respect" is so closely "linked to social justice and inclusion". But "social justice and inclusion" are euphemisms of a factional political ideology that, though widely influential among America's ruling elite, is mostly detested outside the confines of said elite and its bobo fellow travelers.

I'll give Zaretsky some credit. Despite his predictable anti-Trump stance, his piece does represent a stab at relatively sober political analysis. I think the contention that "...Trump’s ‘insecurity’, his unending struggle with those who question his legitimacy, is integral to his charisma" is a valuable insight. One wonders, however, if his recourse to Freudianism doesn't fatally undermine his argument. For example, Zaretsky is quite clear that both Donald Trump and Barack Obama are "charismatic" figures--in fact, he asserts that Obama is possessed of an even greater charisma than Trump. Thus his analysis cum critique of Trump on the line of Weberian "charisma" must apply equally well to Obama. Mark the following passage:

"Freud showed in his book on mass psychology that in democratic societies the charismatic bond may rest on an appeal to frustrated or unfulfilled narcissism. The followers idealise the leader as they once – in childhood – idealised themselves. Etc."

Overlooking the dubious character of Freudian psychology, this is obviously intended to be a criticism of Trump-as-political-phenomenon; but mutatis mutandis it must be true of Obama and his supporters as well. Zaretsky tries to overcome this contradiction by suggesting that some charismatic leaders--presumably including Obama--appeal to their supporters' good sides while other charismatic leaders--like Trump--appeal to their supporters' bad sides, but that badly begs the question and ultimately reduces Zaretsky's piece to a factional rhetorical exercise.

The real issue here is that whereas Trump is possessed of a genuine "charisma"--for good or ill--Obama was just another establishmentarian pol. His veneer of charisma had everything to do with the fact that American whites are programmed to feign receptivity toward blacks, and in Obama--as Joe Biden so gamely put it--they had finally found a "clean and articulate" black to lionize. Obama went on to govern, not as a charismatic leader of course, but rather as a "pragmatic manager"--as Zaretsky admits. The choice before the U.S. electorate in 2020 won't be between rival visions of charismatic leadership. It will feature instead a charismatic and disruptive figure--Donald Trump--and a yet to be determined uncharismatic Democrat who will seek to continue, and perhaps intensify, a long-established mode of governance. Electorates in democracies throughout the world (see, for example, the recent election in India) are more and more disaffected by the latter prospect.