Several factors point to a Democratic victory in the next US presidential election, including success in the 2018 midterms, a series of state polls, and enormous rank and file enthusiasm, reflected in the large number of candidates who qualified for the debates. Still, the Democrats vastly underestimated Trump in 2016 and may repeat the mistake in 2020. Wishful thinking is not the only pitfall. Understanding the nature of Trump’s divisive personality, and the relation between that divisiveness and America’s politics, is still undeveloped. Here Max Weber’s theory of charisma may be helpful.

Charisma, according to Weber, is a quality of the individual personality that sets them aside from ordinary men and women, so that they are ‘treated as endowed with … exceptional powers or qualities’. Charisma supplements other forms of political power such as bureaucracy (Trump’s ‘deep state’), plutocracy and aristocracy (strong in Weber’s time and perpetuated in the US in the legacy practices of elite universities). Writing in Germany during the First World War, Weber did not believe that traditional democratic values, such as equality and inclusion, could explain the politics of what he called ‘mass-states’ or ‘leader-democracies’, such as Germany, Britain, France and the United States. Rather, such states generate charismatic leaders capable of strong and independent direction, both to allow mass democracy to flourish, and to fulfil their geopolitical role. According to Weber, the charismatic leader has three qualities, all of which Trump exemplifies, and all of which the Democrats misunderstand.

First, the charismatic leader’s power rests on beating rivals in competition, rather than on knowledge or right of inheritance; the charismatic leader is always an expert in struggle. Their status as victor, however, is always in doubt. Charisma is bestowed by the masses, who remain the ultimate authority; the claim to a special mission breaks down when it is not recognised by those to whom the leader ‘feels he has been sent’. In Trump’s case, his charisma rests not so much on having previously beaten his rivals, as on beating them over and over, like a children’s superhero. Understanding this is key to understanding his constantly picking fights and engaging in apparently absurd conflicts, especially after he seems to have won a victory – as with the Mueller Report, or immediately after his election. Democrats see this as an expression of personal insecurity, bad temper and bullying. It may well be, but Trump’s ‘insecurity’, his unending struggle with those who question his legitimacy, is integral to his charisma.

Second, the charismatic leader in a democracy must articulate and defend a new direction and new values for the country as a whole, values that necessarily derive from creative individuals and not from institutions. The Democrats have difficulty seeing that Trump is doing this because of their defensiveness regarding the Obama presidency. Obama’s articulation of the need for what he called a ‘new mindset’, not just a new policy, was in good part responsible for his charisma in 2008 (much greater than Trump’s). Obama’s switch from charismatic leader to pragmatic manager once he took office left a void into which Trump stepped eight years later. It is impossible to understand Trump’s historic role without seeing that he is fulfilling, however perversely, the promise of a new beginning that Obama made in 2008.

Third, charismatic leaders to demonstrate that they are personally responsible for their decisions in a way that the bureaucrat, or the party leader in a parliamentary system, is not. The liberal complaint that Trump makes everything about himself – his egoism or narcissism – misses the point that charisma must be personal. One way that this element of personal responsibility shows itself is by uninhibited associative speech, which presupposes a suspension of ego control – what is often regarded as Trump ‘running his mouth’. Here, taken more or less at random, is an example of Trump’s speech:

We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them. And we’re taking people out of the country, you wouldn’t believe how bad these people are.

The Democrats reduce this to Trump’s obviously egregious racism. But it is also an example of how he lets his guard down to convince his followers that they are seeing a ‘real person’, not a scripted persona. Weber’s prototype for ancient charisma, the Hebrew prophets, frequently made public appearances in which they lacked control, behaved unpredictably and exposed themselves to abuse. Gladstone, Weber’s prototype for modern charisma, was noted for speaking extemporaneously, supposedly a sign of his personal responsibility or ‘genuineness’. Here again it is Trump’s charisma, not his personality, that needs to be understood.

Still, Weber’s focus on charisma has a notable gap: what exactly creates the bond between the leader and his or her followers? Here, Freudian mass psychology deepens Weber’s analysis. 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. For this to work, the charismatic leader has to possess not only exceptional qualities but also the typical qualities of the individuals who follow him, in a ‘clearly marked and pure form’ that gives the impression ‘of greater force and of more freedom of libido’. The charismatic leader thus appears as an ‘enlargement’ of the follower, completing the follower’s self-image rather than, as in other forms of charisma, being out of reach.

Charismatic leaders may also appeal to their follower’s better natures – as, for example, Lincoln and Roosevelt did. Such appeals to what Freud called the ego-ideal also raise self-esteem, more firmly than the narcissistic bond that Trump favours. Trump not only refuses to do this, but appeals to the opposite values to Lincoln and Roosevelt: nationalism rather than patriotism, exclusion rather than inclusion, self-interest rather than social justice. This is why he stirs up fury and hatred, along with loyalty and admiration. Both the love and the hate arise out of an intense personal connection, which is what Weber meant by charisma.

Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. 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. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.