Brian Milne examines charisma as a compelling attraction,  inspiring people to follow others especially in world of politics and the current fight for leadership in the British government.

There is something horribly depressing when one sits down to write, not suffering writer’s block which is a much dreaded affliction, but not being able to keep apace of what is happening fast enough, thus ditching each attempt to get beyond a few paragraphs before seeing it no longer works. Such has been the parallel that has had people looking in one direction then the other as if watching a tennis match. Between Theresa May’s demise and then resignation as prime minister of the UK and the so-called Brexit negotiations, more so the domestic ones in parliament recently, things move too quickly. They may seem static with particular things to focus on. But that is not the case. Behind the façade there is so much happening it can be overwhelming. It absolutely needs to be seen from outside and treated as a warning to other countries not to be trapped in such a predicament. We need to look at the people driving the political changes we are seeing. For many years they have often been unsatisfying for electorates because they have been fairly quiet, not doing a great deal people mention apart from raising tax rates and passing a few irritating laws, the politicians themselves seemed boring and staid. Now we have a set of names that arise continuously who appear to be the driving force for change. That is what we need to understand. Therefore, here I shall attempt to look at one very important part of what is happening to an extent worldwide, but is very influential here in Europe.


We have looked at populism several times. It warrants examination many times, in as many ways and with as many insights and perspectives as possible. What it has lacked thus far is closer examination of the people at or near the top. It is relatively easy to name Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Boris Johnson in the UK, Narendra Modi in India, Donald Trump in the USA, Marine Le Pen in France, Joko Widodo in Indonesia, Recep Erdoğan in Turkey or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. They are all populists. Yet if we look at them in media pictures it is hard to put one’s hand on one’s heart and say any of them is exceptionally or strikingly attractive. Yet something attracts people to them, despite many of those who vote for them realising that they are probably not the best politicians to choose. So, how do we get to such places? It is very subjective and does not apply equally to all people, indeed this ‘power’ is often only really effective on and for a minority, but they create a movement that is sometimes almost cult like that gives some of these people authority. That power is charisma.


The simplest definition used by the Oxford English Dictionary is that charisma is a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. Thus one might, for instance, say ‘he has tremendous charisma and stage presence’. It is, one might also say, a divinely conferred power. It appeared in the English language in about the mid 17 century meaning the divine power through ecclesiastical Latin from the Greek χάρισμα (charisma), from χάρις (kharis) that means  ‘favour’ or ‘grace’. It has modified in English, likewise other languages, to be more about presence than anything else. It is the proverbial spider to the fly situation. People know charismatic figures are dangerous but the allure is irresistible. Looks might help but history tells us that is seldom the case in politics.

Look at German sociologist Max Weber’s analysis. In the essay ‘The Three Types of Legitimate Rule’ in his book Economy and Society he wrote about three types of authority; there is also the transcription of a paper he delivered ‘Politics as Vocation’ in the collection of his work published as Rationalism and Modern Society. A century on and nobody explains it better than Weber in terms of what is now happening in politics. Simplifying Weber’s view we see that charismatic domination is essentially different from the other two forms of authority which are what we call legal-rational authority and traditional power because it does not develop from established traditions, but emanates from the strong belief followers have in their leader or somebody who exerts influence and power over them. It is the way most dictators use democracy to seize absolute control, thus subject to their personal authority and the support of their inner circle of confidants. Thereafter they have no problem entirely removing any residual democracy that would stand in their way since they have proven themselves about that. This is precisely why many of us can obviously name Adolf Hitler, then perhaps a handful the most dominant members of his cabinet, insofar as such a thing existed, but, beyond that, know few names to, very quickly, none at all.

This has been very much the case with Donald Trump’s presidency. Even with the almost extraordinary amount of attention often paid to his senior appointees, it is very difficult to name many members of his political inner circle at all. Before the last national election in Brazil, some commentators warned that Jair Bolsonaro, a far right populist who very openly declared his admiration for the brutal military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 85, presented an unambiguous threat to democracy. Other commentators were of a different mind, thus argued that the country’s strong institutions, including a determined and dynamic press and fiercely independent judiciary, would limit his clearly authoritarian and very undemocratic tendencies. It is now a very divided country, but he has the upper hand with the ‘mob’ on his side along with the military and police who are servants of the state, thus under the control of whoever is in government.

The divergence over Bolsonaro reflects the intellectual debate over so-called populist figures worldwide. A number of renowned scholars have warned that populists tend to be astonishingly corrupt, maintain their hold on power by making the opposition illegal or simply imprisoning its key figures and cause lasting damage to their country’s democratic institutions. Before they do that they need to gain control of power. Historian Niall Ferguson has suggested that populist governments tend to be so incompetent that they prove short lived. There is some truth there, especially in the common denominator of those who become dictators or simply authoritarian leaders where democracy barely survives to have a chance of re-emerging where free elections are still possible. Those people tend to be at least well into middle age or on the edge of being elderly, but they are also mortal and, in common with everybody else, suffer the ravages of age and mortality, especially the latter which could also be a road or air accidental death, perhaps even falling badly over a shoelace. Mortality is fatal, but also tends not to turn out natural heirs who match their predecessor’s example of how a nation should be governed because too many of those dominant figures are not only charismatic but also egotistic and lacking in tolerance of any disagreement with their will. Unless they have blood heirs, like Kim Jong-un who is son of his predecessor Kim Jong-il who was, in turn the son of Kim Il-sung the first Supreme Leader of North Korea, but of a totally uncharismatic dynasty, they tend to be relatively short lived regimes. However, what is also mostly the case is that those who reach such elevated political heights tend to ride on their personal charisma to do so. Their inner circle is mostly loyal and devoted to their leader; he or she is likely to have a very strong following among the country’s population although not always a real political majority. It does not, in most cases at least, require film star looks.

Enter the dragon

Thus, there we are at present confronted with a man who is considered the nemesis of liberal thinkers because he has become the ‘guru’ of xenophobic nationalist, aggressive conservatives, who whilst eschewing religion himself inspires deeply evangelistic groups to greater conservatism whilst simultaneously setting Italian politicians against the Roman Catholic priesthood, the present pope included and even on a couple of specific occasions. That is, as will probably be obvious by now, Steve Bannon. There we have a man, now in his mid-60s, a raddled looking character, frequently unshaven, greasy looking hair, ‘badly’ or, at least, casually dressed, often overdressed in a wax jacket over two shirts, and certainly less formally than the people he meets and works with and is often considered to look somewhat drunk although he claims to have given up drinking. He is a paradox. He carries the external image of the late 1960s to early 1970s casual and very liberal man, internally he is an aggressive, angry but controlled hard right winger. He has some high level Jewish American supporters yet he has not been backward in using anti-Semitic language. He is uncompromisingly negative about Muslims. He openly campaigns to create a populist alliance in Europe that aims to fulfil the USA’s neoliberal agenda to destroy the EU. His ‘friends’ include Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Salvini, Johnson, Wilders and others who are bent on the downfall of the left, liberalism and the EU, aiming at subservience to the USA. He gets away with it despite all the negatives because he is charismatic.

There is not a lot, if anything, that one could pick out as positive in that description. Yet he attracts people around him. He does not immediately appear to be charismatic, yet among those people with whom he is working very clearly is. So actually pinpointing what that quality is evades what we may expect. In some ways he has the same kind of ‘charm’ as Adolf Hitler’s long time supporter and Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, who drove the Nationalsocialist machinery more effectively than others ever could. Goebbels was a small, not actually attractive man with a clubfoot when such birth defects would normally mean he would be done away with. Yet he was considered strongly attractive by women, not only Hitler but other senior Nazis considered him very special to the point he was sometimes compared to Mohandas Gandhi, thus referred to as the Mahatma Propagandhi by a few brave souls. Gandhi was most definitely charismatic. Thus that comparison draws out one of the paradoxes of charisma. Those who met him from outside the Nazi circles, non-Germans especially, considered him either very charismatic or a boring and unattractive man. Several other leading Nazis were also anything but attractive; Reinhard Heydrich had an impressive list of names for his role in the creation of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), a little later making the Gestapo into an instrument of fear, the Butcher of Prague, the Blond Beast, the Hangman and Himmler’s Evil Genius among them. From younger days, even through his successful and ostensibly happy marriage, he had many affairs, men also found him attractive as an example of German manhood, he had charisma. Behind that was a man who appeared to be compassionless and ruthless, there was no real reason for anybody to find him at all attractive. Benito Mussolini was also considered very charismatic, again his affairs with women and how he won over people to support his fascist ideology especially showed some kind of attraction that was not substantiated by his looks. Adolf Hitler in Germany and Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union had vast personality followings, as repugnant as history makes them, both had millions of devoted followers who would have fallen at their feet, ultimately many of whom perished fighting a war that cost many of them their lives. Charisma is not just like glamorous film star looks and a wonderful smile, perhaps even a charming personality or simply sexiness.

A case study

So here we are with the seemingly anything but alluring Steve Bannon attracting the attention of a number of populist leaders, some in high office in their country, others aspiring to head nationalist right wing governments. So let us look at Bannon and Brexit as a kind of case study. I shall take the Bannon, Johnson, Farage and Trump connection as my example. An article by Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer on 22 June began:

‘On 16 July last year, days after his resignation as foreign secretary, the Daily Telegraph gave most of its front page to the man whose career it had done so much to nurture and promote: Boris Johnson. “He’s back,” roared the masthead. “Boris Johnson returns to his Telegraph column.”

It was a major coup for the paper. Johnson’s column – for which he was paid £275,000 a year – regularly made headlines and it had been missed during the year he had reluctantly given it up to be foreign secretary.

And now he was back. For the paper, it was already paying dividends. Beneath a photo of Johnson, the banner headline on the front page said: “It’s time to believe in our Great Britain.” And underneath, in smaller type: “Boris Johnson in rallying call for the nation to look to a brighter, post-Brexit future.”

In a hotel room in central London, someone was giving careful consideration to the text: the man who had guided Donald Trump’s path to power, Steve Bannon. He seemed to have no doubt: the headline, the framing of Johnson’s forthcoming resignation speech, the “rallying call”, these were the themes he said he and Johnson had “gone back and forth on text” about over the weekend.’

There we have Bannon’s finger in Johnson’s campaign to become prime minster, for qualification of Bannon’s capabilities his work for Trump is included.

A news blog ‘Byline Times’ wrote on 26 June, that ‘… then there’s Nigel Farage. (…) says Bannon met Farage, as well as other European far-right leaders, during (…) crucial week. And they’ve long been close. Is there a deal? Between Johnson and Farage? Farage’s funder, Arron Banks, has been hinting at it for weeks: having Johnson as PM and Farage as deputy.’ We have constantly seen reference to Trump’s preference for Prime Minister in the UK, Boris Johnson, in the UK and other international media. That is the choice of a person of no admirable qualities who managed to wheedle his way to the presidency of the USA on rhetoric that was not in the least bit convincing to most half way intelligent people is using one of his ‘intellectual henchmen’ who attracts others of his ilk, who then uses his charisma to steer other charismatic, ambitious men (and a few women of course) toward their ultimate goal but in such a way that those he leads will then follow him into the hands of the powerful people who stand in the shadows unseen and whose money buys off rest of their ‘souls’.

How do we determine who and what is charismatic?

Is Trump charismatic? Certainly he used a defiant kind of self image in his election campaign where he came across as the millionaire playboy type of character, somebody who is a ‘bit of a character’ which is a kind of charisma. Indeed, that is the same type of imagery the ordinary man of anti-EU-ism in the UK projected, Nigel Farage with his pint of beer and a cigarette at the pub, whilst being a former commodity trader with unknown amounts of investment, a large salary, expensive homes and chauffeur cum bodyguard driven car. For many people he is a charismatic leader of a cause. Again, not a movie star image, but having a doting following nonetheless.

What is it we see? It is not just a bunch of men (and some women) who are themselves powerful or supported by even more powerful backers, but people who are attracting a considerable sized following on absolutely false pretences. Why I draw Johnson to centre ground here is that all manner of media, including to some extent that which generally supports him (with the exception of the Daily Telegraph for obvious reasons), has consistently drawn attention to his lies, indecisiveness, evasiveness and apparent lack of political vision, dressing up his two terms as Mayor of London as some kind of outstanding success when it fact it was an exorbitant waste of a lot of money for vanity projects that were abandoned or failed. Yet his popularity does not diminish. We have some time still to wait before we know who will be the next prime minister of the UK, but most bookmakers are still presenting him as the odds on favourite. People buy the lies and hyperbole of those people who have that personal ‘magic’, charisma, which gives them authority. Whilst we know that false oratory has stirred entire nations into the biggest imaginable mistakes possible, it appears that people cannot learn from those mistakes. Charisma conquers all, exerting an authority that people find irresistible. Those of us who do not suffer the curse of charisma look on, but who will believe us if we lack that magic?

The effect on European politics

So, here we are in Europe with ‘home grown’ populists supported and spurred on by the influence of powerful people in the USA, mainly channelled through one man, that sets out to undermine and bring about the collapse of European unity. It is driven by economic competition that deprives neoliberal business people, often excessively rich individuals who seem set on world economic domination, of the profits they would be reaping in Europe. We are watching the USA lose its once liberal image, not that it was the real picture ever, to become a state that despite its origins is becoming very closed, thus nationalistic and xenophobic to the extent that even those of the ‘wrong’ culture or religion already there for numerous generations are being seriously downtrodden. Now they are trying to influence Europe to move in that direction. Thus leaders are necessary, but those who command power and loyalty. For that personal authority often depends on charisma.

It does not appear to apply in all countries though. One cannot describe Marine Le Pen in France as charismatic, indeed she is perhaps quite the opposite. It would be very difficult to describe any particular German politician as charismatic as well. There we have two leaders, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel who have enjoyed immense popularity; however neither has the striking quality of being charismatic. In the former case, the now only 40 year old president who effectively came into politics as an outsider, was simply promising change and broke the back of the French tradition of ‘mature’ leadership with his ‘youth’ in political terms. So, being young and different is not the same as charismatic. Angela Merkel has been a pragmatic but in most senses an unexciting leader. Again, using the word charismatic would be pushing beyond what she actually is. The same goes for most other heads of state or other senior politicians who tend to be unmemorable. Unfortunately, there appear to be no names that stand out among politicians in Europe who could use charisma to fight back against the wave of populism that has and uses that quality.

Thus, now we can watch the UK where the last two candidates for the leadership of the Conservatives, therefore the post of prime minister, are two extremes of personality. The frontrunner is very clearly unsuited to the post he strives to take on. His competence is in doubt, internationally as well as nationally, he is given to indecision, lies, contradictions and fails to cover up a dubious past and present personal life. He is, however, the favourite of MPs at present and the 160,000 party members in the last round of voting because he is charismatic which goes before his many flaws. The other candidate has a personality not much more absorbing than a plank of wood, not that his manifesto is exciting anyway. If Brexit is teaching us one thing about politicians it must be that we need to scrutinise then closer before they get as close to power as too many have. That is not to say that those with the kind of personality that attracts a strong following must be dismissed so easily, but that we must find a way of looking behind the all too powerful force of charisma, use those who are not influenced by that thing who can objectively look behind the façade to see the real man or woman and what they can actually do, not what they convince people they would want to do. Moreover, the people who pull the strings behind those people know exactly what they are doing by using personality rather than political vision. What we need at the same time is those with the skills and vision to lead for and with their people, irrespective of whether they are charismatic or simply pragmatic. Unfortunately, there appears to be a quite acute shortage of such people at present.

Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

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