Leadership thinkers have been puzzling over how to describe President Trump’s style. Sara E. Gorman, a public-health expert, and her father, Jack M. Gorman, a psychiatrist and CEO of Franklin Behavioral Health Consultants, explore his charismatic leadership style in this interview in the Atlantic in October, 2016, just before the election.
“Persuaders might want to reduce the possibility of dissonance by constantly reassuring people that they have made the right choice … or that there is no viable reasonable alternative,” they write. (Remember “I alone can fix it?”)
In the interview, the Gormans make some interesting arguments about how otherwise intelligent people become followers of charismatic leaders:
“Sara Gorman: I just want to say I think it was fortuitous that the book has come out now with Trump running for president, because we see a lot of parallels with the charismatic leader and the conspiracy theories. And one of the things that we emphasize in the book, that is really the center of it is that idea—this is what made us write the book—that a lot of the people who hold some of these beliefs including being easily easily persuaded by charismatic leaders or pulled into cults are actually very intelligent.
The response has usually been just to throw facts at people and assume that they just don’t know any better. When in reality, often you are dealing with intelligent people. I think what happens with people who fall into cults and also conspiracy theories, it has more to do with feelings of powerlessness, and especially if you’re very very stressed, you can really be much more susceptible to these ideas. In that way, it’s not as much about your intelligence as it is about your circumstances and feeling like you’ve lost control in some way.”
They also raise an interesting point about the value of vagueness for charismatic leaders. While transformational leaders take on the burden of creating understanding and collaboration through eloquence and galvanizing information, the charismatic leader creates a template that almost any idea (factual or not) could be plugged into. This gives followers a feeling of coherence, without the need for specifics.
“Jack Gorman: I once heard a speech by Wayne LaPierre, the director of the NRA. And you could insert almost any cause into that speech, because he almost never actually used the word gun. He talked all about freedoms, fairness, protection, family—you could imagine a far left person talking about their cause putting it in the same words. You’ll very rarely hear Wayne LaPierre talk about the data about whether personal gun ownership is actually safe or not. He’ll talk about, “I’m protecting your freedom.”
And you have the same thing when Trump talks about immigration. He’ll never cite actual data on the number of crimes committed by immigrants vs. non-immigrants. You probably heard if you listened to the VP debate when the moderator said to Pence, “but you know the most recent incidents were all done by American citizens, how do you account for that?” and he ducked that question and went right back to very loaded emotional words — “tragedies occurring to families.” So what he does is deflect attention away from the data onto these base emotions, and then they tell you, “we’re the only ones who can save you.” And if you already feel like you’re a person who doesn’t have a voice, that’s an extremely attractive way to put things.
Sara Gorman: He is always appearing as though he’s winging it. I think all of that sort of helps build his personality cult. Because in a weird way it makes him seem more approachable, like he’s being genuine, and he’s a person, and so the cult around him or the whole support around him is about his personality versus political beliefs. That is so typical of the charismatic leader, versus the sort of traditional leader, which is more like Hillary Clinton, who really gleans her authority from experience and bureaucratic processes. And the personality cult, the groups that form around them tend to be much stronger than the groups that form around these traditional leaders….”
So how does charismatic leadership based on fear affect cognitive processes? Very deeply!
The point is, those fears that these charismatic leaders arouse are often committed to permanent indelible memory, and they become extremely hard to dislodge, and they are easy to evoke simply by making people scared again. So all that Trump has to do is say “these immigrants are going to kill you,” and his entire message about immigration becomes immediately recalled.
Read more from the Atlantic interview, and check out the Gormans’ book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us.