Explaining Trump

One of my favorite lectures to give is on the theory of charismatic leadership. Under the theory, a charismatic leader obtains power due to a perfect storm of personal characteristics, follower characteristics, and situational factors.   First, the leader must be:

  • Self-confident
  • Convinced their views are correct
  • Energetic and enthusiastic
  • Expressive
  • Excellent communicator
  • Engages in image-building

This sounds to me like Donald Trump, even down to the hats. No doubt he works very hard to build an image of infallibility.

Second, the followers:

  • Have high respect for the leader
  • Are loyal and devoted
  • Have a personal affection for leader
  • Have high expectations for themselves
  • Have unquestioned obedience

Notice the way Trump’s poll numbers are unaffected by anything he does or says? It also seems that Trump’s support base is, at least in part, a disaffected group who have real concerns, but until Trump, no outlet by which to express their frustrations politically.

Here is where it gets interesting…the required situational factors:

  • Distress or crisis
  • Perceived need for change
  • Opportunity to articulate an ideological goal
  • Availability of symbols
  • Ability to articulate follower roles

Again, think about the hats, and the slogan of make America great again. Things are getting scary because the recent terror attacks here and abroad represent a crisis that has enabled Trump to pivot from goofy and misguided to outright hateful and un-American.

Charismatic leadership in an of itself is not good or bad, it is amoral.   The problem is it leads to very quick changes in an organization or nation. An effective charismatic leader can do great harm or good before people realize what exactly is happening.

To sum up, I do not think the Trump phenomenon is all that hard to understand, it is a textbook case of charismatic leadership. But it is scary.


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