The inauguration of our 46th president last week didn’t feel like just a government function.
It was a mix between a Hollywood movie, a church service and an awkward family Zoom call. President Joe Biden was the superhero, the savior and the patriarch.
That fits into a larger phenomenon of Americans deifying our political leaders, and it seems to be getting worse. You can buy a wide variety of prayer candles depicting elected officials as literal saints.
Former President Donald Trump’s movement demonstrates the point best of all. Right-wing social media is filled with images and animations idolizing Trump — hanging out with George Washington or Jesus, sometimes with a halo; flanked by bald eagles and ripping off his shirt to expose big, sweaty pecs; committing violence against mock journalists in a professional wrestling match. People fly flags, get tattoos and paint their tractors and party barges to honor the one-term, twice-impeached president.
Political movements have long resembled pop culture spectacles, and U.S. government ceremonies have always had a weird air of religiosity. I thought this year might be different, what with everything we’ve been through.
Americans learned some hard lessons in the last four years. About the perils of presidential authority, especially when it’s cheered on by utterly submissive allies in the legislature and electorate. About the necessity of a skeptical and adversarial press. About the power of protest and citizen vigilance. Now that we have a shiny new president, will we forget all that?
As part of the inauguration festivities, three former presidents filmed a segment delivering their seemingly candid reflections on the transfer of power. The bipartisan trio featured Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
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It was just three chums, could have been your uncles, standing around and having a chat. Except those chums presided over deadly foreign policy disasters, a devastating drug war, mass incarceration and millions of deportations.
We can acknowledge that some presidents are better than others, and that Trump was uniquely bad in some important ways. But we can also admit that the office as currently situated is inherently brutal. Presidents are not our friends.
The problem with political heroes is that they lull us into complacency, or worse, complicity. I know because it happened to me.
I came up in politics as a follower of Ron Paul, the libertarian-Republican former congressman and three-time presidential candidate. My friends and I exchanged books, wore campaign T-shirts and spent weekend nights watching YouTube compilations of Paul’s speeches from the House floor and the campaign trail. “Ron Paul Republican” was an easy shorthand to describe our political views.
When you bind your political identity to another person, you become willfully ignorant of their defects.
Confronted with evidence of Paul’s connections to racists and corruption in his 2012 campaign, I ignored it or tried to explain it away. Until I couldn’t anymore. I swore off political heroes, although it’s an urge I still have to check.
It’s a very normal inclination to try to parse the world into good and evil. Just as sure as we invent heroes in our minds, we also conjure villains. It’s tempting to think of political figures from opposing movements as irredeemables who can do no good.
That instinct, too, is hazardous. If we start with the premise that a politician is fundamentally evil, it’s easy to dismiss all their ideas and demonize their supporters without due consideration.
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The job of a citizen in a representative government is not to hold out for perfect politicians, nor to root out all the wrong-thinkers. Either would be impossible. Instead, our task is to create the conditions where politicians have incentives to do good. Make it uncomfortable to do the wrong thing, and easy to do the right thing, no matter what team they’re on.
It’s hard work. It’s not as sexy or instantly gratifying as falling in with the cheering masses. But it’s the only way our republic works.
If it’s a hero you want, choose a dead person or a fictional character. They can’t kill you, put you in jail or deport your neighbor.
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