Sunday, May 27, 2018
Opinion

Hillary out-charismas The Donald

Late on Tuesday night, after Hillary Clinton finally won a majority of pledged delegates in the Democratic primary, Vox editor-in-chief Ezra Klein published an essay titled "It's time to admit Hillary Clinton is an extraordinarily talented politician."

As you might guess from the self-evident headline — anyone who clinches his or her party's nomination for the most powerful office in the world is pretty much by definition an extraordinarily talented politician — Klein's piece is a perplexing document. Klein muses that "there is something about Clinton that makes it hard to appreciate the magnitude of her achievement," and mentions that "plenty of Americans hate her"; he makes these observations without once using the word "sexism" or "misogyny." He suggests that "the reason no one has ever broken the glass ceiling in American politics is because it's really hard to break," which comes close to a tautology. He claims that Clinton has prevailed because she's taken "a more traditionally female approach to leadership: creating coalitions, finding common ground, and winning over allies" (how novel!) but he doesn't explain why we should consider these tactics "less masculine" than anything else required by the symbolic leader of a major party.

In the middle of all the straw-man attacks, stating of the obvious, and unsupported claims, however, Klein makes a compelling point about the sexist double standards that dog Clinton. Klein cites Rebecca Traister's wonderful recent profile of Clinton in New York magazine, in which Traister writes,

If, as in this election, a man who spews hate and vulgarity, with no comprehension of how government works, can become presidentially plausible because he is magnetic while a capable, workaholic woman who knows policy inside and out struggles because she is not magnetic, perhaps we should reevaluate magnetism's importance. It's worth asking to what degree charisma, as we have defined it, is a masculine trait. Can a woman appeal to the country in the same way we are used to men doing it?

Klein concurs with Traister's gendered reading of the likeability gap between Trump and Clinton. "The quality we adore in presidential candidates — the ability to stand up and speak loudly, confidently, and fluently on topics you may know nothing about — is gendered," Klein writes. When men do this, they draw rapt, impressed audiences. When women do it, they're decried as phonies.

But is the ability to draw people in just by opening your mouth really charisma, or is it just magnetism? People use the terms interchangeably, but psychologists who study charisma define it by different standards. According to Ronald E. Riggio, who's studied charisma for decades, the trait requires expressiveness (the ability to communicate spontaneously and authentically), sensitivity (the ability to listen well and correctly read people's emotions), and control (the ability to modulate emotions). 

By this standard, Donald Trump is not charismatic. (He is expressive, surely, but neither sensitive nor controlled.) Neither are most American politicians in recent memory: Barack Obama is an extraordinary communicator and a bastion of control, but he's more of a talker than a listener, more matter-of-fact than emotionally tuned in (although he can be amazing with children). One exception in a parade of charisma-less American politicians is Bill Clinton, who possessed all three ingredients, so much so that he could get away with saying that he felt other people's pain.

I think when people call Trump charismatic, what they mean is entertaining. You never know what they're going to say next, or how they're going to say it. They're exciting to watch, whether you relish or condemn every word that comes out of their mouths. Hillary certainly doesn't have much entertainment value. After decades in the spotlight, she's composed and predictable in front of crowds, and she knows that the media will pounce on any misstep.

It should be comforting to Democrats — and anyone else who shudders to think of a Trump presidency — that Hillary's biggest personal weakness isn't that she can't connect with people, but that she's not a ton of fun to watch.

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