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The Leader and His Followers, Part 2: The Tin God

Our previous post discussed how the dictator’s hard-core followers have come to identify their rages and resentments with his, a phenomenon that has received extensive discussion elsewhere. It’s also not difficult, if we are honest with ourselves, to understand how hard it is for people to admit they were wrong, especially if doing so might challenge closely held beliefs. The phenomenon of the political apostate deserves fuller treatment at another time; let’s just say for now that people tend to find making such changes socially, intellectually, and even spiritually wrenching.

Harder to understand is how and why the dictator’s followers have elevated him to quasi-divine status, even though there are many examples, both contemporary and historical, of other tyrants in other countries basking in the same kind of worship. But by contrast with the well-worn idea that Soviet Communism (and its imitators in other countries) was a substitute for traditional religion, complete with its own dogmas, heresies, deities, and the belief that “salvation” could be found only in the Party instead of the Church, a large proportion of the American believers in the dictator claim to be traditionally religious, an identity that would seem to preclude idolizing a secular ruler. So how are we to explain that they nevertheless do so?

The conventional wisdom among the opposition is that the dictator-supporting “evangelical” Christians, Orthodox Jews, etc., are merely hypocrites who do not really believe in the tenets of their own religion, but are instead drunk on the prospect of power and revenge on their perceived enemies that the Leader offers them. There is some truth in this, but not enough. Rejecting everything the followers say as bad-faith arguments or a covering up of their “real” motives may be tempting, but taken to its logical extreme it allows us to ascribe any evil motives we wish to them, and is therefore a dead end for analysis. So when the religious among the dictator’s followers admit that he is an imperfect tool for gaining what they want, but insist they nevertheless admire him for battling the same “godless” enemies they wish to conquer, we think it’s safe to take them at their word. If they really think they are following a great warrior and agree among themselves that they must excuse or accept his flaws as the price of victory in an apocalyptic battle, it goes a long way toward explaining their cultlike devotion to his revolting person.

But it seems to us there’s still an ineffable something more. Here the methods of fiction may be of help. So imagine yourself, if you will, in the head of a prototypical Trump supporter. Let’s say you are a white man in your mid-forties named Steve, living in a burnt-out industrial city such as Youngstown, Ohio. You played a little football in high school, but truth be told you were never very good, and the torn ligament when you were a junior came as a secret relief. You weren’t crazy about school, either, so after graduating, you went to work in the car parts factory that your father was about to retire from, only to be caught in a mass layoff a few years later, when you were in your mid-twenties. By then you were married to Paula, a girl you knew in high school but not the one you had a crush on, who was way out of your league. Paula was five months pregnant with your first child, a girl you’d end up naming Brooklyn, and you spent a scary six months or so living on unemployment checks and a little help from your parents and Paula’s before she recovered from giving birth and went to work as a secretary (“admins,” they call them now) on the strength of her community college degree. You took a little longer than that to pull yourself together, but eventually you ran into your high school buddy Eric at the hardware store. He had a successful contracting business and needed a pair of extra hands, so one thing led to another and you went to work for him. It was a steady if boring job, laying all that tile and installing granite countertops for the yuppies in the suburbs, and you did okay at it until early 2008, when Eric’s business went bankrupt and he shot himself in his office one night.

Meanwhile, Paula had borne you two more children, Mike and Madison, and rose from her admin job to head of HR at the middling-size law firm where she worked. She also became more and more active in her church, dragging you and the kids along most Sundays when you’d rather have been sleeping in. Her family was always more churchy than yours, but this was a whole other level, one step removed from snake-handling, and you felt pressured to become “born again” at the age of 32, which was a great source of jokes for you and Eric and your other buddies when you went out drinking. The preacher’s sermons were too hellfire for your taste, but you went along with it to keep Paula happy. And then, a year or two before Eric’s company collapsed and took him with it, you had an affair with an admin in the front office, a girl in her early twenties named Heather. Paula found out, of course, and made you go for marital counseling with her, a grueling experience you’d never care to repeat, though you suppose it’s a good thing you had your marriage to fall back on when you were thrown out of work again. Since then, you’ve drifted from one job to another, even flipping burgers for a few bad months back in ’09. None of these jobs has paid anywhere near what you were making in January of ’08.

In November of that year you voted for Obama, though you didn’t tell Paula or your remaining buddies, because something sure had to change. But things kept getting worse. Brooklyn grew from a sweet little girl into a raging, uncontrollable teenager. There were boyfriends who hit her, arrests for drug possession, a failed rehab that you had to take out a second mortgage to pay for, you name it. Mike had learning difficulties and was bullied at school, and Maddy turned into Paula’s little pet. When you did find contracting work, you had to work alongside guys who literally didn’t speak English and had those ugly broad-nosed features and blotchy brown skin. What was the world coming to? What had happened to your dreams of football stardom, of owning your house free and clear and a little boat you could take out fishing on the weekend? Was that so much to ask?

When the dictator came along, you laughed at him at first, with his obviously fake hair. But then you remembered watching him on “The Apprentice,” how he took control of a situation and had that uncanny knack for knowing what would succeed in business. Here was a guy who made millions and took hot girls as mistresses, as many as he wanted, instead of getting busted by his wife for a few pathetic little trysts with pimple-scarred, whiny little Heather. He was living the dream, he knew all the big shots who had taken it away from you and all the dirty tricks they had used, and he would help you reclaim it! The higher the dictator’s star rose, the more he upset all the big shots, Republican and Democrat alike! It was worth it just for that! And as for his attacking the illegals, well, all those guys you’ve worked with who refuse to learn English even though they live in America and instead stand around laughing about you in Spanish could stand to be taken down a peg or two.

Moreover, the dictator is a brilliant businessman who knows what he’s talking about when he says good jobs will come back for guys like you once the illegals are sent back to the shithole countries they came from. You can feel good about your support for him, too, because Paula and the pastor at your church say he’s fighting to put the fear of God back into America. Who knows, maybe Paula is right and you wouldn’t have had all this trouble with Brooklyn if they hadn’t banned school prayer. And it just makes you SO MAD the way THEY have been trying to tear the dictator down from the very start! First there was that Russia nonsense, then they tried to impeach him, and when that didn’t work they blamed this China virus on him! Who knows but that THEY created the virus in the first place, just to spite him! Of course you identify with your President and look up to him, when they keep throwing obstacles in his path the same way they’ve always done with YOU!

Who is really to blame for Steve’s troubles, for which he has learned to scapegoat the dictator’s enemies? It’s a trick question, of course. Impersonal economic forces, malign neglect of people like him by at least some of the elites he’s been trained to hate, bad luck, bad information he’s been fed, and some bad choices of Steve’s very own: these and many more factors are “to blame,” along with what we humanities types call “the human condition” that practically nobody gets the life he dreamed of and thought he deserved, and life is full of disappointment and pain for everybody.

People tend to worry, with exercises like our story about Steve, about that old chestnut, tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. Well, no. To understand all is not to forgive all. Empathy and sympathy are not the same thing, and even if Steve doesn’t personally go around spewing racist insults or assaulting dissenters, he gives support and comfort to those who do, which is hard to forgive no matter what problems he’s had in his life. But without at least an attempt at understanding where followers like him come from, there can be no hope of avoiding an endless succession of dictators in the future.

One thought on “The Leader and His Followers, Part 2: The Tin God

  1. Good evening E.G. and thank you yet again for another enjoyable bit of stimulation.

    Before the tasty bit of fiction regarding Steve, you have quite perfectly described the Left’s (one could even say Communist Left’s) new Post-Modern Religion and The Faith of Social Justice. Your piece is a tad-bit behind the times in this regard. If one were to have any interest in pursuing this topic a simple overview of this “New Religion” could be found here:

    Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on one’s political views) the Far Left or rather the “New Socialist Democratic Party” of the United States has already succeeded in establishing this religion.

    As for Steve, the answer is quite simple. Steve (and every other “white or not” Steve out there, in the 21st century United States society) is solely to blame for his own problems. Personal choices continue to have consequences.

    Thanks again my good friend. Looking forward to the next piece, as always, S.C.


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