Charisma Rules Politics as Never Before

President-elect Donald Trump and President Barack Obama at the White House shortly after the 2016 election.

I have a theory.

When people lose faith in institutions (political parties, organized religion, etc.) they don’t become cynics or nihilists, they simply transfer their faith to people. Specifically, two kinds of people: themselves and charismatic celebrities.

The first category seems rather obvious to me. There’s always been an acute independent streak in Americans. “You’re not the boss of me,” “Go with your gut,” and “Who are you to judge (me)?” could be national mottos.

But it seems to me that we’ve passed some kind of tipping point.

I don’t know when it happened, but the trend stretches back a long way. Some might want to start the timeline in the radicalism of the 1960s or the selfishness of the “Me Decade” 1970s. Others might lay blame on the alleged greed of the 1980s. The point is that Americans, regardless of ideology, are more inclined to go with their own moral or political instincts than to rely on experts or defer to institutions.

The consequences of this cultural revolution are a familiar lament for many conservatives. Self-esteem is valued over self-discipline. Regular church attendance has been in steady decline (the numbers are debated, the trend is not), while the number of people who say they are “spiritual but not religious” has been steadily growing. According to the Pew Research Center, 27 percent of Americans describe themselves this way. In other words, a growing number of Americans haven’t lost their religious sensibility — for want of a better word — they’ve simply decided they can be their own priests, as it were.

In short, our understanding of the world has become increasingly personalized, governed by our own judgments, instincts, and feelings.

Which brings me to that other category of people: charismatic celebrities. From Oprah to Jordan Peterson, Americans seem less interested in putting trust in institutional “brands” and more interested…

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