American liberals are horrified by Ron DeSantis, both in terms of what he has done so far as governor of Florida and what he might do as president. But many take comfort in this frequently repeated idea: whatever his appeal to the Republican base, he is so lacking in charisma that winning the presidency would be exceedingly difficult.
This observation has come from both DeSantis’s critics and admirers. He is “reserved and dry” and has a challenge “forging connections with people”. He’s “pinched and humourless”. He “just doesn’t have the charisma to command a national political stage”. He “has the charisma of a pair of cargo shorts”.
It hasn’t seemed to hurt him so far, though. He was narrowly elected governor in 2018, re-elected by a large margin in 2022 and has become the most prominent contender for the 2024 presidential nomination not named Donald Trump.
Ever since the German sociologist Max Weber theorised about charisma in the early 20th century, scholars have considered its impact on politics, though many struggle to define it. Some describe it as “personal magnetism”. Others locate it in the bond between the leader and their followers; as historian David A Bell wrote, “charisma is not just an individual quality but a relationship”.
Even if Republican voters are attracted to DeSantis, they don’t seem to be getting swept off their feet. They like what he’s done in Florida; they like his crusades against liberals; and they think he would be a smarter, more disciplined version of Trump. It’s all exceedingly rational.
Yet all those who made it to the White House in recent decades have possessed at least one of two kinds of charisma. On the personal level, many had a charm that enabled them to connect with people individually. That was especially true of Bill Clinton and George W Bush. The other form of charisma was a more distant version – the kind you can see through your TV or on a jumbotron. They could hold a rapt crowd in their hands and move them emotionally. That was especially true of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
In almost every recent presidential campaign, the more magnetic personality prevailed. The failed nominees – John McCain, John Kerry, Bob Dole, Hillary Clinton – were outshone by their opponents.
Whatever else you think of him, Trump has his own brand of charisma. By no measure is he a dynamic orator, and he does little typical glad-handing. But even if you loathe him, he’s hard to take your eyes off of – or at least that was the case in 2016.
Many charismatic politicians have the ability to draw at least some supporters from the other side of the aisle. If – like Trump – you aren’t able to do that, charisma can make a difference by producing such an intense emotional response from your side’s voters that they’ll rush to the polls (and drag their friends and family along) to support you.
This is where DeSantis will put the importance of charisma to the test. Not only isn’t there much evidence he can win any Democratic votes, but he also doesn’t seem to want to. His political persona is built on hating and tormenting liberals. Yet he also doesn’t appear to inspire the emotional response that more charismatic politicians have. At least so far – and unlike some others who have run for president – nobody is so furiously devoted to him that they’re getting a DeSantis tattoo.
Democrats who are horrified by DeSantis’s evident authoritarian tendencies hope he’ll be another in a long line of candidates who seemed to have great potential but proved less than compelling when the bright lights of the presidential campaign were upon them.
And yes, plenty of boring politicians have ascended to high office. But US voters usually want to be moved and inspired by the person they elect to the White House. The president is supposed to be a manager, but also a kind of national parent or even a spiritual leader – the embodiment of something greater than what’s expected from ordinary mortals.
This was part of Weber’s original conception of political charisma, which he said endowed someone with “supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities” in the eyes of supporters.
DeSantis might prevail in the primaries precisely because Trump has lost that image among many Republicans. But winning the presidency without the ability to light up a room or enrapture a crowd is a tall order.
© Washington Post