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You Really Like Me!

“Likability” in American politics
Donald Trump's face appears on Sally Field's body during her Oscars acceptance speech.

A bad personality is the worst thing you can have. “When you walk up there, you have a pad, you have to write in all caps at the top of the pad: ‘LIKABLE,’” an adviser admonished Ron DeSantis during debate prep in 2018. This was good advice: DeSantis has the face of an entitled child hearing “no” for the first time.

If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine someone pulling the lever for DeSantis. But I cannot imagine anyone liking him personally. It is not just him: this year’s GOP primary contenders proved to be the least likable crop of people ever, fished out of a poisonous sea of unappealing bottom-dwellers. Voters largely agree—asked whether DeSantis was “likable,” only 37 percent of likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters said yes. He dropped out last weekend after finishing a distant second in the Iowa caucuses. Vivek Ramaswamy and Chris Christie, both now out of the running, fared no better. Trump clocked in at about the same, with 36 percent. Haley is by far the most likable, at 55 percent, but it’s her strongest quality, and she finished eleven points behind Trump in the state.

For decades, “likability” seemed like the key to victory, at least in the eyes of campaign managers, pollsters, and pundits. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign begged people to see through her wooden personality to her values; unfortunately, her “values” also sucked. Eyeing Trump, liberal pundits asked each other, warily, “What do they see in him?” as if he was a friend’s obnoxious boyfriend. Polls were not clarifying: Trump was deemed a less appealing drinking buddy than Ted Cruz, an embarrassingly low bar.

To those who made a science of breaking down and measuring candidates’ personalities in order to size up their chances, Trump posed a conundrum. Trump has never been “likable,” if likable means “easy to like; pleasing, agreeable,” but some people really like him. Did his rise spell the end of the cult of likability as a decisive force in American politics?

Likability started showing up consistently in the media in the 1960s, often to name what Nixon lacked. It was the dawn of televised debates, where candidates’ personalities were exposed to the full scrutiny of the TV-owning public. By the mid-1970s, a sizable crew of political communications scholars had dedicated themselves to unraveling the mysteries of a candidate’s “image.” Scholarly studies and focus groups painstakingly analyzed TV spots and speeches, linking campaign success to an occult alchemy of personality traits. While they debated the right recipe of personal qualities, other scholars complained that no one seemed to care about political “issues” anymore. Likability became a measure of holistic personal appeal—charisma brought down to earth and neutered.

It is unclear whether voters actually started to care more about personality than they used to, but the media definitely did. Around the turn of the millennium, major polls began including a new “key indicator”: whether voters could imagine getting a beer with the candidate, or the so-called “beer test.” In a land where all are purportedly created equal, you should want to hang out with your president.

This election cycle, charisma, strength, and vigor have all but replaced likability in campaign rhetoric.

Soon after “boring” Al Gore lost the presidency to a more “likable” Bush, self-help authors doubled down on the idea that fixing your personality is a key strategy for success. I found at least forty-four self-help books with likability in the title published since 2000; by contrast, I could find only four across the whole twentieth century. The Obama era produced titles like Arch Lustberg’s revised and expanded edition of How to Sell Yourself: Using Leadership, Likability, and Luck to Succeed and Dave Kerpen’s Likeable Social Media and Likeable Business. (Kerpen is cofounder of Likeable Media.) With the rise of influencers, whose marketing value is often measured in likability, corporations discovered they could be likable too.

Presidents are not, of course, vessels of a so-called national personality. The words we choose to describe them, however, seem to offer templates for how we might measure ourselves. Likability may seem innate, but with the right mix of authenticity and affectation, you can turn yourself into a human magnet. Likability, in the experts’ view, centers on one core principle: people like you when you make them feel good. As Tim Sanders writes in The Likeability Factor, likability is “an ability to create positive attitudes in other people through the delivery of emotional and physical benefits.” Self-control helps: “Resist the temptation to talk about yourself,” writes Kerpen. Manage your anger; make warm eye contact. To try to become likable is to try to guarantee belonging by cultivating a personality that isn’t so much a personality as a set of techniques—a “series of successful gestures.”

You have to be careful: get caught trying to be likable, and the jig is up. “Don’t try, just be,” warns The 11 Laws of Likability, a 2011 selection of the C-Suite Book Club. To be likable is to navigate a thicket of contradictory imperatives: be real, but “agreeable”; be normal, but not boring; be nonthreatening, but command respect. The balancing act is easier for some people than it is for others. Likability pretends to objectively measure a person’s raw potential for popularity, but it correlates with a very specific vision of masculinity: a golden retriever on a low dose of Xanax. The pro-Hillary feminists who claimed that the glass ceiling was reenforced by men complaining, “I just don’t like her,” had a point. Women in the public eye do balance on a knife’s edge between perceived unlikability and incompetence. More generally, people claim their racist, ableist, classist perceptions are actually subjective judgments of individuals’ personalities: “I like him”; “I don’t like her.” Of course, it’s not simply that the less young, white, and male you are, the less likable you seem in the eyes of others. Becoming liked is a tricky dance where different people have to jump through different hoops.

People like the idea that what you see is what you get: that once a president is inserted into the bureaucratic machinery of the White House, they will retain the same values. The most likable candidate is usually an “authentic” underdog without overt “ties to Washington,” a would-be equal at the neighborhood bar. The trouble is, no one stays likable for long in D.C. Obama flew too close to the sun, likability-maxxing in 2008 before becoming another cold, unfeeling technocrat in the eyes of many. Seeing former First Lady, senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struggle to show a winning personality in 2016 felt like watching the state personality machine blow a fuse. Biden’s formerly memeworthy likability has withered away, along with much of his domestic agenda.

It turns out “good” personalities have been hiding technocrats with bad politics all along. The masquerade is falling apart, so much so that likability itself is now, to some, a telltale sign of inauthenticity. For the conspiracy-happy, the smiles of traditional politicians mask vast underground networks of sex trafficking and child sacrifice. Meanwhile, from the left, we watch elected representatives hem and haw about international law while abetting genocide in Gaza.

Likability is charisma in a muzzle—its weakling little sibling, the tamed runt of the personality family. It helps the bitter pill of technocracy go down, providing just enough quasi-populist flair to prop up and lubricate broken social architecture that has left us at risk of full-blown fascism. Likability keeps people invested in the president as the icon of the status quo, but not so cathected onto one person that they resist the transfer of power. When it’s time to concede, the likable president’s voter base smiles and waves; the charismatic leader’s followers storm the Capitol. Likability is a Band-Aid for the cracks in capitalism. Real charisma is duct tape.

This election cycle, charisma, strength, and vigor have all but replaced likability in campaign rhetoric. This change in style is due in large part to gender panic. Fueled by the murderous transphobia that’s gluing the right together, men are battening down the hatches on their masculinity: they want their leaders to do the same. “We need somebody that the other countries are gonna respect . . . or fear,” said one Trump supporter. “We gotta start standing up for ourselves,” he added. Candidates posture accordingly: Ramaswamy used the word spine three times in the fourth debate; DeSantis’s failing PAC is called “Never Back Down”; Haley’s tagline is “Strong and Proud.” Trump actively cultivates an aura of macho potency: while in office, he posted an image of his face photoshopped onto Rocky Balboa’s chiseled torso, providing MAGA with a softcore pastiche of its own idealizations. “I will restore peace through strength,” he said in October. Active listening is out for 2024; brute force is in.

We have long been cautioned not to bring our unruly emotions near our politics.

This is not helping public perception of their personalities—performance scholar Joseph Roach argues social magnetism sparks when people achieve “the simultaneous appearance of strength and vulnerability.” Strength and vulnerability “work cooperatively, like muscles in opposable pairs” to mesmerize the public. Contradictions create an electromagnetic field: be the perfect candidate, but show imperfections; be a success story, but also a regular guy. Trump’s extreme wealth and brazenness qualify him as supernaturally powerful; his blunders and “persecution” make him a man of the people. “I won’t stand for anybody being persecuted the way he’s been persecuted,” said one supporter, as if enjoying a fantasy of personally rescuing Trump.

For decades, likability was a magic word that seemed to bind the country together through a common standard of a “good” personality. It reassured people that on the inside we were all the same, felt the same feelings, saw the same world. We tell stories about politicians’ personalities to make the irrational behavior of others make sense—easier to blame one person you can see than to blame millions of people you can’t. Pundits and pollsters toss around the term as if it’s an objective property we all agree upon, a mystical, moderating force on our government and our social lives.

Where the presidency is concerned, there is retrospective consensus: Reagan and Clinton were likable; Dukakis and Gore were not likable; Bush, Jr. was too likable. But analysis of National Election Studies data suggests that stories about past candidates’ likability might be a collective hallucination: in 1980, people had a net negative evaluation of Reagan as a person; voters didn’t especially disapprove of Dukakis or Gore during the election cycle. As likability teeters on the edge of obsolescence in the age of Trump, it’s not clear if it ever played a meaningful role in determining the outcome of elections in the first place. Liking someone is a feeling, not an inevitability of their purported likability; voting for someone is a decision, not a logical outcome of “liking” them.

Liking Trump—wanting Trump—operates on a different logic. This is personality firing on all cylinders: unadulterated charisma. Capitalism is demeaning and brutal; Trump floats above it all in a hot air balloon of wealth and hate speech repackaged as humor. Voters find him entertaining. People who have come to narrate their disappointment as white persecution and their fear as gender chaos look at him and imagine what it’s like to feel empowered. They like him because he makes them feel good.

This is not likability—it’s devotion. “He’s a jerk. Nobody likes him,” says one Trump voter. But: “I felt safe while he was president,” she adds. Grappling with Freud, Adorno writes that fascist leaders hijack people’s unconscious fantasies of surrendering one’s agency to an omnipotent primal parental figure. The world is big and bad, so Daddy needs to be strong and mean: “Vote for Trump, solve your problems.”

As good liberal subjects, we have long been cautioned not to bring our unruly emotions near our politics. Like magnets near an old computer, uncontrolled feelings would rip our political life all out of shape. Feelings must be limited to disciplined enthusiasm for effective government led by likable people. On these grounds, the center wags its finger at the left and the right, where emotions have taken over.

If likability is dead, it’s because the right is incoherent and needs more than likability can offer in order to glue itself back together. For now, Trump’s unlikely charisma fits the bill. It isn’t just the right that is having this problem: it is capitalism itself, descending into a series of mounting crises. In both politics and everyday life, the cracks in social structures have gotten so big that likability alone can’t inspire hope in elected officials’ ability to solve problems—if it ever could.