It’s fitting, I suppose, that Donald Trump has lately been volunteering semi-friendly, even admirable, noises about Vladimir Putin.
“I think that I would probably get along with him very well.”
“If he wants to be bombing ISIS, let him bomb them … I think we probably work together much more so than right now.”
“He’s got a tremendous popularity in Russia, they love what he’s doing, they love what he represents … you can get along with those people … You can make deals with those people.”
Similar cultural dynamics, after all, which rocketed the real-estate mogul to front-runner status in the Republican presidential primaries can be credited with Putin’s emerging big-man profile on the global scene: both successfully rushed to occupy grotesque leadership vacancies which presented themselves before them.
More than one political analyst, many of them decidedly not Trump fans, have reflected that The Donald’s volcanic ascendancy can be laid solidly at the feet of spine-deprived public figures on either side of the political divide. Cowards, man-pleasers, careerists, play-it-safers? Undoubtedly. The kind of individuals who inspire passionate loyalty in others? Gimme a break.
Thus, enter Trump.
No denying, a generation weaned on the likes of the dandified, hemming-and-hawing Barack Obama, the weeping and hapless John Boehner, the risk-averse Mitt Romney, the lethally poll-tested Hillary Clinton will be attracted to any authentic display of temperamental robustness. These iron-deficient wonders have stirred a craving for genuine leadership – even if it’s of the misguided variety represented in the Trump or Putin phenomenon.
So we’re subjected to the bizarre spectacle of otherwise sensible Western commentators actually sympathizing with the former-KGB, homicidally thuggish Putin. Sure, he’s a soulless wannabe Czar, a ruthless crypto-Soviet revanchist; a self-consciously studly embarrassment glorying in overly choreographed, bare-chested photo ops. Sure he attempts to sanitize his barbarities by manipulatively boosting the virtues of marriage and child-rearing, by condemning sodomy, by endorsing traditional Christian faith and indignant patriotism. Then again, he’s a tough guy! At least he acts like a man; that is, like a male — which is not something the forcibly effeminized folk of the United States and Europe are accustomed to seeing much these days. And it seemingly goes a long way with potential critics who end up not being so critical of him.
Trump, meanwhile? Say what you will of his boorishness, his ideological inconsistencies, his checkered history, his hair. He’s fearless. He’s brash. Once he pronounces on anything, he’s unapologetic.
It’s enough to make it impossible for voters who don’t particularly care for him to whole-heartedly denounce him. Many are those who’d never countenance Trump or anyone cut from his bolt of cloth seated behind the Resolute Desk, who’d reject him for president outright and absolutely. But bring themselves to dismiss him as exhaustively worthless? They’re not quite ready for that. Strength — particularly in our testosterone-starved age — maintains a certain appeal, even when it comes in Donald-Trump packaging.
And the sixty-nine-year-old billionaire understands that – as, I suspect, does the Russian president. ” I win hands down on leadership, right?” Trump recently taunted. “Double and triple anybody else. That’s very important to people now. They want leadership. They’re tired of having weak and incompetent.”
The depressing pattern has repeated itself: a demoralized and fretful populace hankers for someone, anyone, to step forward and solve their problems, restore hope. A “strong man” arises to accommodate those longings, temporarily making things better; emphasis on “temporarily”. Then …
There was Adolf Hitler at the service of his exhausted and embittered “Volk“. Napolean the tyrant galloped to the rescue of a French-Revolution-ravaged nation — not once, but twice! Mussolini? How ’bout those on-schedule trains! Etc., etc.
Thomas Carlyle memorably promulgated his “great man” theory: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”. That catch-all, certainly, is an exaggeration: Herbert Spencer insightfully qualified Carlyle’s explanation by suggesting “the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences … Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” Nonetheless, there’s definitely something meriting consideration in the Scottish philosopher’s words.
Libertarian exuberances to the contrary, man was created to need leadership of some kind, whether government or a figure or two around whom to rally. When that’s deficient, individuals and the broader community pay a price.
2600 years ago, God scorched the chiefs and elders of Israel for their misfeasance toward His people. “[S]urely … My flock became a prey, and My flock became food for every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd.” (Ezekiel 34:8). Centuries later, the Great Shepherd concurred, grieving over the intolerable situation of leaderless multitudes; “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
As unflattering as is the “sheeple” pejorative when leveled at the unthinking, easily-controlled throng, it remains a fundamental reality that human beings are designed to function, on some level, as “sheep” – God’s metaphor of choice, not mine! They’re critters made in His image, no argument; yet, still, requiring shepherds.
That’s especially the tragedy of Donald Trump: in our frantic day, misdirected and undirected as it is, he’s sort of pointing toward the proper model of authentic leadership America needs. Sort of. That said, whatever beneficial influences he might proffer are ultimately stultified by his confidence become pomposity, bluntness become vulgarity, boldness become recklessness. As Peggy Noonan recently put it: “Imagine if he’d been disciplined.”
Better yet, imagine Trump’s (or Putin’s) stylistic forcefulness yoked to noble character.
Sigh. It breaks the heart thinking about what could — what should — be. We’ve gotten nearly none of it from those in the spotlight for far too long. So a loud-mouthed New York tycoon and erstwhile Commie mob-boss have roared into the vacuum. Sure, it’s a shopworn cliche; that doesn’t make it any less true. Or distressing.
Images: Modified from Gage Skidmore; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_by_
Gage_Skidmore.jpg; and http://www.leftcom.org/it/articles/2012-03-30/la-russia-dell-eterno-putin