Saturday, June 29, 2019

Iconography and Presidents

(Written not long after the election of Donald Trump.)

Let me suggest that not only the Trumpites who are dug in, but also the Berniebros and, yes, the Clintonsistas, too. People are making what ought to be simple fact-based questions (did Russian propaganda influence the election? what was the influence of the Clinton campaign over the DNC?) into identity-based beliefs, which cannot be touched.

Once identity becomes an issue in politics, we start to see behaviors analogous to family dynamics (perhaps these are actually the same.) Roles take precedence over actual behavior: “Dad” may be an abusive alcoholic, but he’s still Dad and deserves some sort of respect. So we have the precedence of image over the person’s actual behavior: Trump is making American great again, Hillary Clinton the great feminist hope, Bernard Sanders is some sort of saint and so on. Everyone is supposed to be the messiah.

What I find striking is the divergence between the image and the person. It is most evident with Trump, of course, many of whose followers still believe even as he works hard to elevate his ego and ruin their lives, but there is some of it in all the leaders. Hillary Clinton is indeed a feminist, but she is also a devout Methodist and conflicted on abortion and charity. (And the less said about her beliefs on foreign policy, the better.) Sanders plainly believes in his socialism, but he is more of a tough practical political survivor than a saint.

As analysts and commentators, we may pay attention to the person behind the curtain, as it were – we supposedly study these matters and pay attention to the actuality as well as iconography – but we have difficulty bringing these insights to a wider public.

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