No one is likely to call Biden a cult leader anytime soon, the Era of Presidential Idolatry appears to be over, but is that essentially good or bad or just a thing?
“I have to tell you, you know, it’s part of reporting this case, this election, the feeling most people get when they hear Barack Obama’s speech. My, I felt this thrill going up my leg. I mean, I don’t have that too often.” This was since disgraced political commentator, Chris Mathews, infamously reacting to one of future President Barack Obama’s speeches during MSNBC’s coverage of the Democrat primary. The date was March 27, 2008.
A few months later, after defeating Hillary Clinton in the primary and securing the nomination for President, Obama informed the world that “we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.”
Conservatives griped that the language was near messaniac and that his audience of thousands cheered like a cult. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Obama went on to be officially nominated in a stadium, complete with props of greek columns and other overhyped imagery.
Eight years later, Republicans nominated Donald Trump to seek the Presidency on their behalf, another candidate that inspired passion and devotion in his followers. So much so, the words “Trump” and “cult” are now inextricably linked in our culture. A few days ago, Jill Tucker, writing for The San Francisco Chronicle declared that “Experts see cult-like behavior in Trump’s most extreme followers. Breaking them free might not be easy.” Less than ten days before that, the Washington Post declared that “The Trump cult has obliterated the line between citizenship and fandom, with deadly results.”
There’s even a book, The Cult of Trump, by leading cult expert, Steven Hasan, who explains how the outgoing President uses “mind control” on his voters. Dr. Phil Zambrano, author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, describes the book as “A brilliant analysis of a unique modern phenomenon. Readers will nod their heads in recognition as Hassan expertly takes them through a fascinating, engaging exploration of the coercive control techniques that President Donald Trump uses daily to influence his followers.”
Clearly, whatever your personal opinion on Barack Obama and Donald Trump, both leaders inspired a lot of passion and devotion. This unwavering passion inextricably bound them to their followers, but also inspired the endless wrath of their political opponents.
Shortly into Obama’s first term, Mitch McConnell informed the National Journal that the “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Even before Obama was sworn into office, Rush Limbaugh famously declared that he wanted Obama to fail. He doubled down on the comment, stating flatly “I would be honored if the drive-by media headlined me all day long: ‘Limbaugh: I Hope Obama Fails.’”
Obama’s every utterance and statement quickly became a meme on the then-growing social media channels. His detractors attacked almost everything about the man, from claims about his place of birth to accusations of homosexuality, in addition to a steadfast belief he was single-handedly turning America into a socialist country.
For his part, Trump’s opponents formed The Resistance, #resistance, before he even took office as well. In the mainstream media, almost everything Trump did from feeding fish in a pond in Japan to having two scoops of ice cream took on apocalyptic significance. If Obama was an America-hating socialist, Trump was an authoritarian and would be Hitler, racist and misogynist to the core.
The situation was so dire that columnists in the New York Times pondered how they could even cover Trump. “If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalist tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”
Four years later, writing for The Dispatch, Never Trump conservative pundit David French, declared, “This is a grievous and dangerous time for American Christianity. The frenzy and the fury of the post-election period has laid bare the sheer idolatry and fanaticism of Christian Trumpism.”
Oxford English Languages defines “idolatry” as the worship of idols. The “extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone.” I think it’s fair to say incoming President, Joe Biden, doesn’t inspire this kind of passion, nor accompanying vitriol on the other side. In fact, Biden reminds me of an old line from an Irish newspaper at the turn of the 20th century: The blessing of today is a curse of mediocrity. It’s getting harder and hard to work up a good hate.
The obvious question facing Biden’s Presidency and America at large is whether or not the lack of passion, dare I call it idolatry, is necessarily a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing. Many pundits and the candidate himself are spinning this lack of passion and devotion as a return to normalcy.
As Vox.com reported during the Democrat primary, “Joe Biden isn’t promising a political revolution. He’s not promising to drain the swamp, restructure the Senate, remake capitalism, or usher in socialism. What Biden is promising is a return to normalcy.”
Joe Biden himself described it, ““The American people want their government to work, and I don’t think that’s too much for them to ask. I know some people in DC say it can’t be done. but let me tell them something, and make sure they understand this. The country is sick of the division. They’re sick of the fighting.” He continued, “I know some of the smart folks say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity. The angrier a candidate can be, the better chance they have to win the nomination. I don’t believe it. I really don’t. I believe Democrats want to unify this nation.”
Right before the inauguration, John Harris, writing for Politico, claimed that boring will be key to Biden’s success, “To the contrary, the new president’s modest oratorical gifts—the fact that he is by modern political standards a bit boring—can be a powerful asset.” Harris explained, “He’s not especially articulate; he is not an electric personal presence; he is not someone who naturally expresses his ideas by framing them as part of a bold historic argument about where the country is now and where it needs to go in the future.”
A part of me certainly understands the appeal: We’ve just gone through 12 years of continued political escalation, unleashed passions, and succumbing to our political ids. We can change all that by just being average, normal, decent if not inspiring: The government’s not going to change radically, it’s just gonna work, hopefully for everyone.
At the same time, I have my doubts. The real question is to what extent leaders reflect the political passions of the day versus create them. The argument against political idolatry largely assumes that the fervor and the resulting political divisions are created by the leaders themselves, rather than a manifestation of what is already present in the arena of ideas. Nor are these arguments mutual exclusive: It’s likely a combination of both.
Consider, for example, the racial tensions that began bubbling up under Obama after Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray, leading to the largest protests in a decade including some instances of violence, and the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. The tensions themselves were almost certainly already present before Obama was in office: There was no policy he pursued prior to the incidents that either caused them or contributed to them. Perhaps, his constituents felt empowered to be more vocal in voicing their concerns and his detractors the same, but otherwise it’s hard to see what role Obama personally played in events.
Likewise, almost every polarizing issue during Obama’s time in office preceded his tenure. The War on Terror, the debt and the deficit, healthcare, the size and scope of government, were all hot topics before Obama ever got into office. I would suggest that the same is true for President Trump: Immigration, outsourcing manufacturing jobs, a rapidly changing country, demographically and vocationally, none of these were issues he created.
Of course, none of this precludes a “cult” leader from channeling these issues to their own ends or making them more divisive, but the underlying point still remains. There’s no doubt that to a significant extent, leaders reflect their time instead of creating it. They influence, they goad, they might even inflame, but the fuel is already present. Put another way, mind control only works in science fiction, at least so far.
In this formulation, the “cult” leader is more a vessel for people’s wishes, hopes, and fears, than an oracle of them. We brush aside their faults, not because we don’t see them, but because we don’t care. We believe them, not because we think they are incapable of lying and misleading, but because we believe any lie they may tell is on our behalf.
The question then becomes: Is it better for the country to have a leader that brings simmering issues to a boil or just keeps them simmering on the backburner so to speak?
Here we get to the crux of the matter: I would argue that the real problem we face is that no major political issue has been truly resolved in fifty years, with the possible exception of abortion and gay marriage, although even those topics still have plenty of unresolved related matters. This is the real aberration of our age, and one of the key reasons we remain so polarized.
Do we have a government restricted by the constitution or do we have a living constitution? Unresolved. Does the government foster equality of opportunity or equity of outcomes? Unresolved. Do we have a right to restrict people seeking entry into the country? Unresolved. Do any rights remain reserved for the states alone? Unresolved. Is the federal government responsible for taking care of American’s first and the world second, or vice versa? Where does the legislative duty of Congress end and the administrative state begin? Unresolved. Are we a great nation with flaws or a fundamentally flawed nation? Unresolved.
These are just some of the underlying issues that have animated both Obama and Trump’s tenure, and yet instead of resolution 12 years on, every one of them has served primarily as a political trench warfare for the past half century. A Republican comes into office and moves the trench slightly to the right, a Democrat to the left, but ultimately we continue fighting endlessly about the same fundamental thing, often over the same stretch of ground.
To be certain, some of these issues will never be resolved. There will always be a tension between freedom and security for example.
At the same time, in previous political eras big decisions about the direction of the country have been made with near permanent consequences. In the run up to World War I, the United States pursued isolationist foreign policies, with the exception of the Monroe Doctrine. World War I changed all that. The Great Depression cemented the government’s role in managing and subsidizing the economy. The Great Society created the administrative state.
Whatever your position on each policy, the direction of the country was changed permanently, or as close to it as you can get, thereafter. The battlelines were redrawn and the political discussion reset. To use the parlance of our times, there was a “new normal” afterwards and the parties adapted to the changed landscape, in some cases changing radically themselves to do so.
The same is not true of the clashes over the past fifty years; instead of resolving an issue, we work almost exclusively at the margins.
Obamacare is the perfect example. It’s a half-measure towards universal healthcare and not what anyone actually wants, and yet we’re saddled with it and still fighting about it. The example is even more apt when you consider that universal healthcare has been a goal of Democrats since the 1960’s at least and yet the party still refuses to run on Medicare for All. In my opinion, it’s this lack of resolution, or the impermanence of what we call resolutions these days, that animates the underlying polarization, not any specific leader or cult of personality.
The real problem is that we never get the chance to accept our losses and change with the times; we simply regroup for the next political battle in the same continually escalating war.
Therefore, I am guessing that Biden’s time in office will not be the return to normalcy many pundits are expecting. I believe they’ll be sadly mistaken when we find ourselves refighting the same battles less than four years from now with just as much, if not more passion than ever.
Unfortunately, I fear there will be no political peace until we begin resolving some of our more fundamental differences and decide what kind of country we truly want to be.
One other thing to note: Normalcy itself is highly overrated, and often something that we see only in retrospect. Were the Clinton years normal? We started out with the first World Trade Center bombing and ended up with impeachment; there were also the worst race riots in a generation. Were the Bush years normal? We started out with 9-11 and ended with a global financial crisis. Like everything else in life, the emotion associated with an event tends to fade over time.