I’ve voiced my concerns with the hero-worship of Ronald Reagan in the Republican Party in the past.
CPAC 2016 was oversaturated with Ronald Reagan panels, focus, and mentions. Where’s the next Ronald Reagan, they pondered. Who will save us, they asked.
But just as Ronald Reagan was idolized for what he did, Donald Trump is being idolized for what he could do.
Trump is next savior of the Republican Party, according to his supporters. He’s the fuel, the inspiration that republicans have desperately needed. Many republicans are happy to look past his less-than-conservative policies, and vitriol comments, to the passion he brings. He’s reinvigorated the party, they say, despite his bombastic behavior.
And though many on the #NeverTrump train would argue that Trump is an exception, a freak-accident, I’d argue he’s the culmination of numerous issues within the party that have built up over time.
The preverbal cup has been filling up for a while now, and it’s now spilling over
And the blame rests partially on the Republican Party’s hero-worship.
Hero Worship: the belief that whenever calamity trikes, a leader will (should) rise up to lead the party out of the desert. The hero defines the party and is a blueprint for successful elections, policies, etc.
Past heroes are idolized (i.e. Ronald Reagan, George Washington, etc) to the point of revolving any issue around “what would he/she do.” Hero worship revolves around the tactics, behavior, and charisma of the individual, and the crises they dealt with.
In fact, the relationship between the hero and the crisis is what makes or breaks the perception of them as a hero.
The Leader & The Crisis
Imagine Abraham Lincoln without the Civil War, FDR without the Great Depression, or Ronald Reagan without the Cold War.
What would’ve happened to these leaders if they never had their crisis? Would we revere them if it wasn’t for the crisis they persevered through?
You might say that the crisis is to thank for making them such a great leader, and that’s true to a degree. But more often than not it creates a perverse definition of what a great leader looks like.
The Leader and The Crisis narrative creates a necessary requirement for what a great leader looks like. They’re not great if they avoided war and kept peace; no, we romanticize the ones who led us through the low points of the nation. And this is normal for us to do, but it’s not healthy.
Narratives are powerful forces for altering our outlook on life.
The Allure of the Leadership Narrative
We can’t help but desire someone to come and save us from the impending crisis. When the crisis is upon us, that desire multiples ten-fold.
Viewing the world as one in constant crisis from numerous enemies goes hand-in-hand with the draw of leadership. Leaders humanize the world and the issues we face.
Elizabeth Samet, in her book, “Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers” highlights this outlook…
“We also live in a world that romanticizes crisis—that finds in it fodder for an addiction to the twenty-four-hour news cycle, multiple information streams, and constant stimulation.”
99% of these issues are too complex for one individual to fix, but still the narrative persists.
Might I mention that many of these “issues” are inflated and overdramatized by the media, politicians, and so called experts?
Rephrasing Brian Fantana’s popular line in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, “60% of the time the news is overhyped all the time.”
This hype paints a picture of a world in crisis. If it’s not ISIS, it’s Russia, if it’s not that it’s something else. This 24-7 hour obsession with crisis encourages hero-worship. We long for someone to solve our problems, which leads to us falling for charlatans promising salvation.
We Romanticize Leaders, Projecting That Romanticism Into the Present
Joshua Rothman, the archive editor of The New Yorker, describes the effect of romanticizing leaders this way…
“The glorification of leadership makes existing leaders seem disappointing by comparison, leading to an ever more desperate search for ‘real’ leaders to replace them.”
Leaders make sense of the world. They put in terms we can easily digest. And because hindsight is twenty-twenty, we can easily look back on past leaders, connecting their actions with their outcomes. It’s a common cause and effect fallacy.
Ronald Reagan brought down the USSR. FDR brought us out of the Great Depression. Lincoln kept the Union together. We romanticize these leaders because of the results we believe they created.
Romanticizing leaders is a simple outlook on how the world works. Once we glamorize past leaders, we copy and paste that specific situation into our present situation.
Reagan brought the Soviets down with these tactics, so obviously that’s how we should deal with Russia today. You dismiss the complexities and massive differences for a simple storyline.
“This issue back in the day was solved because of a strong national leader, which means we need the same thing to fix today’s issues.”
Why Are Leaders so Enticing to Us?
- We idolize/romanticize past leaders: We look at past leaders, craft a narrative of who/what they did, which leads to romanticizing them. It becomes a circular cycle.
- We want someone to take up our fight/interests: we all want a leader to point us in the right direction and gain traction for our ideas. Instead of doing the hard work ourselves, we wait around for someone to come save us.
- Our negative outlook shapes our desires: idealizing calamities makes the idea of a hero coming to save us enticing. If you view the world as largely dangerous and destitute you’re more likely to want a leader to save you.
- We want someone to do the dirty work for us (moral outsourcing): It’s called moral outsourcing. We want to look good, but we want our self-interests addressed. It’s easier to enforce your ideas on others (or cause others harm) if it’s done through a third party (i.e. your leader, government, corporation, etc).
- It simplifies complex situations: it’s nice to believe that in a nation’s darkest time, one man rose up and brought them out of the night. Unfortunately, history isn’t that simple (and if it is, you haven’t looked deep enough).
Why Should You Avoid Idolizing Leaders?
I have a few reasons why the leadership obsession is a dangerous one.
First, it distracts from the issue at hand. CPAC 2016 was a glorified Ronald Reagan worship service. Yes, the US need to deal with Russia effectively, but interweaving Reagan’s Cold War attitude with current Russian aggression is naïve.
Or how about the problems the Republican Party is facing? How do we solve them? How do we reach out to new voters and minorities? Oh wait, let’s talk about how Reagan did it back in the 80s. America has changed drastically since then, so has the party.
Instead of solving problems with concrete solutions, we opt instead for surface level platitudes that do nothing but point us in a general direction.
Reagan is history. Our issues aren’t.
Second, it creates a perverted and simplified view of the world. Narratives can communicate important ideas clearly, but they can also oversimplify things. Rarely has the success of a whole nation been thanks to one man. Multiple causes, effects, and situations were involved.
To understand a leader’s rise and ultimate success, you have to understand the ins and outs of their cultural, political, and economic surroundings.
More often than not, cultural context is to thank for the leader’s rise.
Third, the desire for a leader can blind you. Think Donald Trump and populism.
Trump is the leader many conservatives have been looking for. He’s confrontational, politically incorrect, and disrespects the establishment. His supporters didn’t just appear out of thin air. No, they’ve been there for a while, licking their wounds, and praying for the day that a man of the people stood up to address their concerns.
You, like me, thought his off-the-cuff comments, flip flopping, and incoherent fifth grade babbling would eventually lose him the nomination.
Boy, were we wrong.
You know why his below average behavior didn’t push fans away? Because his fans were primed for him. They had been dreaming of this moment.
Their desire for a leader was bottomless, and they ran willingly into his arms.
If anything, the most dangerous aspect of leadership worship is that once in a while your worship blinds you to the reality of the situation.
You’ve let a chameleon come in and exploit your hopes and desires.
You’ve fallen for a hell of your own making.