One of the Democrats’ favorite smears of Republicans is to accuse them of political hero-worship. Ever since Donald Trump took up residence in the NeverTrumpers’ brains, his constituency, especially the MAGA base, have been ridiculed as unsophisticated rubes with low-brow sensibilities and fascist inclinations, while clinging to their tin-pot hero, forgiving all his sins and cheering for “racist dog-whistles.”
In other words, Republicans are inherently vulnerable to political “great men,” the charismatic (to weak-minded “deplorables”) demagogues whose flashy, duplicitous rhetoric easily brushes aside the feeble critical faculties of hoi polloi. That’s why the progs abuse the question-begging epithet “fascist”––it crudely evokes despots like Mussolini or Hitler or Franco, while studiously ignoring totalitarian mass-murderers like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Castro.
And who can forget the Dems’ “slobbering love affair,” as Bernie Goldberg put it, with Barack Obama? Nothing MAGA fans have ever said about Donald Trump comes close to the cringing, creepy encomia of Obama’s acolytes. According to numerous “brights” among our intelligentsia Obama was a “rock star,” the Democrats’ “Tiger Woods,” a politician “it’s hard to be objective when covering,” “so impressive, so charismatic,” “something special,” graced with “chiseled pectorals” and a “keen analytical intelligence,” “prodigious talents,” an “amazing legislative agenda,” and “huge achievements”––that’s just a small sample of the cult-like accolades redolent of the propaganda more typical of totalitarian regimes than of free sovereign citizens.
Remember this embarrassing catalog the next time you hear a progressive mock MAGA idolatry, and recall that postwar political hero-worship has always been a bad habit of the Left and progressives. Who is the conservative version of the psychotic, bumbling Che Guevara, whose famous photograph is an obligatory leftist icon? How is it that communism, a failed ideology responsible for 100 million dead, still retains its allure for cognitive elites, while Nazism, responsible for one-fifth of that toll, is universally condemned except by a tiny fringe of cranks?
But fanatically following a “great leader” transcends party or ideology. Historically, for centuries it was the default form of leadership. The mass of people were the mere subjects to aristocratic elites whose power was a function of their descent from the gods, their innate abilities, legendary myths, and personal charisma. They ruled because of who they were, accountable to no other mortal, but only to fate and their fellow gods.
The epochal change came with the creation of “politics” in ancient Greece, the rules-based government by citizens according to shared laws and procedures that transcended human beings––what John Adams called the “rule of laws, not of men.” Power became the collective possession of citizens who used it subject to limitations, but did not own it. They were accountable to one another, and were defined by a common human nature flawed by passions and interests, particularly the desire for power, which was of “an encroaching nature,” never satisfied but always demanding more. The goal was the freedom and political equality of all citizens, and the unalienable rights given by “nature and nature’s God,” not by other flawed men.
Indeed, the U.S. Constitution was created to curtail the inevitable excesses of power, and to protect that freedom. For the question was not if men would succumb to the lust for power, but when. The debates during the Constitutional Convention continually circle back to these dangers of even limited power to turn into unlimited tyranny.
For example, during the debate over compensation for the president, Benjamin Franklin cautioned against adding greed for wealth to the already potent attraction of political power: “There are two passions which have a powerful influence on men,” he argued. “These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money.” When united, these have “the most violent effects.” They inevitably lead, as they had in England, to “all of those factions which are perpetually dividing the Nation, distracting its councils, hurrying sometimes into fruitless and mischievous wars.”
The new nation’s chief executive, then, would not be granted any titles or privileges not limited by the oversight of the citizens and the laws. There would be no “great leaders” in America, no kneeling or bowing, no excessive pomp and deference, only fellow-citizens accountable to the laws that, in the unique case of the United States, citizens themselves had created, debated, and ultimately voted for––the roots of our historic exceptionalism.
For as Adams wrote a few months before the Declaration of Independence, “How few of the human Race, have ever had an opportunity of choosing a System of Government for themselves and their Children? How few have ever had any Thing more of Choice in Government, than in Climate?” And we Americans also were singularly blessed with the character and virtue of George Washington, a leader whose greatness lay in the surrender of power, as George III himself acknowledged when, upon hearing of Washington’s resignation after the Revolutionary War rather than making himself king, he exclaimed, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Time and change, however, have degraded those Constitutional bulwarks against tyranny. The rise of progressivism more than a century ago, and its technocratic pretensions, favor a “managerial elite” and an “imperial presidency,” who oversees unelected and unaccountable executive agencies. These bureaucracies over time have aggrandized more and more power at the expense of Congress, the states, the Constitution, civil society, and individuals.
Next, new communication technologies such as radio, newsreels, moving pictures, television, and the quantum leap the internet has made in the reach and scale of political speech, also expanded the reach of the president and the centralized federal government, buttressed by the purveyors of public information that, as we have witnessed over the past few decades, reflects the political prejudices and goals of the Democrat progressives.
This development has also been enabled by our incredible wealth and its wider distribution, which has increased our expectations for well-being and comfort. Our utopian expectations have been exploited by our “soft despots” who promise to gratify these expectations by redistributing wealth to political allies and clients.
This phenomenon was recognized by ancient political philosophers like Polybius, who linked redistributed wealth to tyranny, “government by violence and strong-arm methods. By this time the people have become accustomed to feed at the expense of others, and their prospects of winning a livelihood depend upon the property of their neighbors, and as soon as they find a leader who is sufficiently ambitious and daring . . . they introduce a regime based on violence.”
The “great leader” the Founders feared has flourished in these circumstances, for aspiring tyrants can bypass the cumbersome, frustrating process of a divided and balanced government. Executive overreach via executive orders, and legislating laws through agency rule-making that bypass diverse Congressional representatives, promise to be more efficient. Meanwhile, widely distributed visual propaganda created by media both dead-tree and digital facilitates this process.
This modus operandi was exploited by the despotic regimes of the early 20th centuries like Hitler and Mussolini, who were masters of using new technologies like film and radio to seduce their followers. As did FDR, for that matter, and his New Deal programs that expanded the reach and power of the federal government at the expense of individuals, families, and civil society. As Mussolini said of him, “the spirit of [FDR’s New Deal program] resembles fascism’s since, having recognized that the state is responsible for the people’s economic well-being, it no longer allows economic forces to run according to their own nature.” A relatively “soft despotism,” to be sure, but despotism nonetheless.
Finally, the traditional forms of rule that for millennia defined power as the personal possession of “great men,” reflect a permanent human proclivity, as our cult of political celebrity shows. As T.S. Eliot once said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Our adversarial political system and its checks and balances can become frustrating, if not annoying or infuriating. People often yearn for a “great man,” the hero on horseback who cuts through the equivocations and pettifogging of smaller men whose grubby ambitions are hidden by the obfuscations of process.
Fortunately, we still remain––for now–– a nation under the “rule of laws, not of men.” We are blessed by the Constitution’s barriers against tyranny, battered and weakened as they may have been, but still the best means that we the people have for pushing back on the growing tyranny of the technocratic Leviathan.
Indeed, the recent Supreme Court decisions against racial discrimination, government compelled speech, and overreach by government agencies and executive orders––all popular with voters––confirm the genius of our divide government, despite its occasional inefficiency. So too with Trump-appointed federal District Court judge Maryellen Noreika, who recently rejected the corrupt, egregious plea-deal federal prosecutors engineered for Hunter Biden.
In the end, however, it is up to the voters to cast their ballots in support of the Constitution and its bedrock principles of political freedom, equality, and unalienable rights, and to restore the “equality under law” that has been serially violated by the current administration and corrupt federal agencies.
Whether freedom endures is up to us citizens, not to “great men.”