The shadow side of political charisma

Charisma. Big subject when it comes to politicians, isn’t it?

And we can fight about it because what you find charismatic in a politician, I may not. Indeed, I’m not happy when the word “charisma” is applied to a politician, because I don’t evaluate the people I’m going to vote for based on their “charisma.”

I’ve seen and read about charismatic politicians enthralling big crowds. It seems to me that the thrall–or thrill, if you prefer–runs two ways. The crowd is thrilled and the politician is thrilled by the thrill of his crowd.

Charisma in a politician skates way too close to demagoguery. And demagogues of whatever stripe make me profoundly uneasy.

Recently, Anna Sauerbrey, a German journalist and editor, has been writing opinions for the Times. I find her not-American point of view of America greatly interesting. A week or so ago, she wrote a column–Germany Joins the Resistance – The New York Timesabout charisma in politicians. The last line of her first paragraph, dry and exquisitely subtle, knocked me out.

BERLIN — Believe it or not, there was a time when German politicians were cool. There was Helmut Schmidt, the 1970s chancellor, packing up the sails of his boat, sleeves rolled up, his face roughened by the wind, tobacco and the Cold War. But that was then; in the decades since, the country has been run by stolid men and women — and, until lately, we’ve been fine with that. For good reason, Germans have a certain allergy to political charisma.


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