A central task of any social movement is to induce people to participate in movement efforts and to sustain their commitment to the cause once they do start participating. This task is especially important for movements that engage in protest, but it is also necessary for movements that limit themselves to electoral and other conventional political activities. The typical absence of material incentives for joining and participating in a movement makes this task highly necessary and one that occupies the attention of movement organizers.
Scholars identify several factors that promote commitment to and participation in social movements. Congruence with movement beliefs and goals and solidary ties with other movement members are commonly cited as necessary if not sufficient conditions for sustained commitment and participation (Barkan, Cohn and Whitaker 1993; Klandermans 1997). Less scholarly attention has been paid to the role played by leadership in this regard, reflecting a more general neglect of leadership in the social movement literature (Morris and Staggenborg 2004). The role played by charismatic leadership has especially been neglected, even though such leadership can greatly help to attract new members to a social movement and to foster their commitment and participation once they do come into a movement (Stutje 2012).
Max Weber emphasized that charismatic authority, whether used for good or evil, may inspire intense devotion but may also be unstable, because if a charismatic leader dies, any other leader will find it very difficult to command people’s devotion as intensely. In a social movement, charismatic leadership may similarly be a mixed blessing. A charismatic leader may bring people into a movement and enhance their commitment and participation, but if this leader dies or exhibits qualities that undermine the leader’s charisma, movement followers may well weaken their commitment to the movement and even end their participation altogether. For this reason, opponents of movements sometimes spread scurrilous lies about a movement’s leaders in an attempt to undermine their credibility, integrity, and any charisma they may possess for their followers.
What does all this have to do with Donald Trump? Just as there are charismatic individuals whose extraordinary personal qualities inspire intense devotion to the movements they lead, so too are there charismatic individuals whose combination of extraordinary personal qualities, beliefs, statements, personal behavior, policy efforts, and even appearance arouse intense hostility, loathing, and other such cognitions that impel people into protest and other political activities. These individuals may be called charismatic targets. If charismatic leaders may inspire people to join a movement and enhance their commitment and participation once in it, so may charismatic targets arouse movement protest and other political activity. They may inspire protests against themselves, or they may act as charismatic catalysts for protests regarding issues, policies, and actions with which they are identified.
In recent history, Barak Obama functioned as a charismatic target for the right side of the political spectrum. Now Donald Trump functions as a charismatic target for the left side, with activists and commentators commonly citing his lying, misogyny, history of repugnant behavior and remarks, ignorance, and too many other negative attributes to list here. More than his views, it was arguably Trump’s obnoxious persona and history of repulsive behavior and comments that inspired the nationwide and worldwide protests at the time of his inauguration. It is safe to say that had any other Republican candidate from the 2016 primaries become president in January 2017, these protests would not have occurred, or at least would have been much sparser and much less attended. This would have been true even if this hypothetical other new president held political views at least as conservative, or even more conservative, than Trump’s views.
The massive protests that instead greeted Trump’s new presidency illustrate a key dilemma for social movements generally and for the anti-Trump resistance movement specifically. If charismatic leadership may prove a mixed blessing for social movements, so might charismatic targetship, to coin a new term. On the one hand, a charismatic target may impel people to become politically active and to protest. In this and other ways, a charismatic target may ignite and/or greatly strengthen a movement, as happened with Trump’s candidacy and presidency. On the other hand, if and when a charismatic target leaves office or other position for any reason, the loathing that propelled people to oppose the target may fade, with this effect weakening a movement by diminishing member commitment and participation. This dynamic may occur even if the charismatic target’s departure changes nothing about the issues or policies driving the now weakened movement.
Donald Trump may be a loathsome president and individual to millions of people, but the political, social, and economic views and policies he represented and championed as a candidate and now as president transcend his individual character and presidency. They were present in the nation long before he became president, and they will persist long after he leaves office, whenever that will be. However, by being so repulsive personally to so many people, Trump makes other conservative politicians seem that much better by comparison, just as Southern white officials who eschewed violence while still thwarting civil rights protests seemed so much better than the Bull Connors of the South (Barkan 1984). Once Trump leaves office, then, there will likely be a broad feeling of relief and hence a decline in movement activity, even if Mike Pence or someone else with right-wing conservative views replaces him. Thus, although Donald Trump’s political ascendancy has led to a new movement with countless new participants, his status as a charismatic target may ultimately prove counter-productive for fundamental progressive change.
Barkan, Steven E. 1984. “Legal Control of the Southern Civil Rights Movement.” American Sociological Review 49:552-65.
Barkan, Steven E., Steven F. Cohn, and William H. Whitaker. 1993. “Commitment Across the Miles: Ideological and Microstructural Sources of Support in a National Anti-Hunger Organization.” Social Problems 40:362-73.
Klandermans, Bert. 1997. The Social Psychology of Protest. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Morris, Aldon D., and Suzanne Staggenborg. 2004. “Leadership in Social Movements.” Pp. 171-96 in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, edited by David A. Snow, Sarah A. Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Stutje, Jan Willem (Ed.). 2012. Charismatic Leadership and Social Movements: The Revolutionary Power of Ordinary Men and Women. New York: Berghahn Books.