The Papal Style in American Politics

“[T]here is no need to narrate actions that do not affect the truth of the history, if they are going to result in the discrediting of the hero.” —Don Quixote

To mark the anniversary of last year’s election, Vice News interviewed a set of the president’s diehard fans to see how they felt things have gone. The exuberance was palpable—the bloom not yet off the rose it seems. Approval ratings bear this out as well. While much is made of the low overall grade the public gives our fair leader (currently 37%), the underlying data tells a slightly different story: 7% among Democrats (no surprise there), 34% for Independents, and an easy 81% among Republicans. That last number has rarely dipped below 80% since Inauguration Day—reaching its nadir in August at 78%. More anecdotal measures likewise suggest the MAGAmentum has not slowed—asked about Trump’s famous claim that he could gun down a man on 5th Avenue without repercussion, one of Vice’s subjects explained that she would know, if that happened, that he did it for a good reason.

Cults of personality are not new to politics, as anyone who has ever questioned the genius of Ron Paul publicly well-knows. But the lengths to which this now infects the mainstream disheartens the sternest of us. Each day brings some new nonsense, such that one begins triaging among idiocies and offenses, bungles and babbles, terrors and tweets. And yet no matter how absurd the claim or condescension, one knows that each time the same folks will queue up to explain to you that yes, we have in fact always been at war with Eastasia.

One of my personal fascinations is the misunderstanding of common maxims. Samuel Johnson’s “last refuge of scoundrels” was the contemporary Patriot Party, not patriotism as a feeling in the breast. Marx did not consider the faithful to be lowly junkies: he described religion as a salve that eased proletarian pain, “the heart of a heartless world.” And, as Jonah Goldberg is always pointing out, Lord Acton was not most concerned that “absolute power corrupts” the powerful—he was concerned with “the certainty of corruption by authority.”

The quotation is from a letter Acton wrote to an Anglican Bishop, not long after the pronouncement of the Catholic Church’s new doctrine of papal infallibility. Acton objected to moral relativism regarding the Papacy’s less noble moments. “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men…There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Whatever power may do to the powerful, it is the drive to accommodate power that is most pernicious. The authority is absolute and “will not be questioned.” To dissent from the administration’s agenda is to defy the will of the people. Indeed, all those not willing to join the team must resign.

I have focused on the current administration, but the political Stockholm syndrome engulfing us is bipartisan. Hence the House Minority Leader, who this Sunday could not bring herself to say that a probably senile octogenarian with a safe blue seat should resign in the face multiple credible claims of sexual misconduct (she revised her view some days later after public pressure). And thus the two decade delay in acknowledging the undeniable: that a former resident of the Oval Office is a sexual predator, and that the American left immolated its moral authority in his defense. It is a small comfort that the presidential glass ceiling was not broken by a candidate rising hand-in-hand with a rapist.

I’m not inclined to add much more regarding the current chorus of unsolicited gonads populating the zeitgeist, but one datapoint bears mention. This week’s Alabama Senate poll showed Roy Moore back up 4 points, after dipping (due to his apparent lack of mall access?). Asked whether they believe the allegations against the defrocked chief, those who voted for Moore in the primary say yes…at a rate of 2%. Democratic primary voters are more certain, answering the question “No” at a rate of 1%. Former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards famously quipped that the only way he could lose would be to get caught in bed with either “a dead girl or a live boy.” Roy Moore seems to be in much the same position.

Politics is sports for nerds, and we will never eradicate the tribal instinct that drives us to one team or the other. But the certainty that the ref is only ever throwing the flag on your guys out of spite is more pernicious on Sunday morning talk shows than on Sunday afternoon—as much fun as the rah rah can be, frivolity is best kept to the frivolous. The Sgt. Shultz mantra—“I see nothin”—is endearing from a sitcom-Nazi, but we invoke it in response to tiki-Nazis at our peril.

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