By David K. Shipler
There is a vacuum in America. Where leaders of virtue should reside, citizens find only a void, which echoes with yearning.
So we have to invent heroes, and we rely on myth-making. These days, whenever a decent Republican dies, bringing that endangered species nearer to extinction, the firmament is flooded with rhapsodies of adoration: first, John McCain, now George H.W. Bush, their reputations amplified as counterpoints to Donald Trump. As the outpouring for Bush has shown this week, we love them more after they’re gone. They are never as pure in life as in death.
The hunger for heroes is one reason for Trump’s popularity among a core of supporters whose cheers cannot be dampened by his insults, his lies, his corruption, his racism, his misogyny, his impulsiveness, his ignorance, his hatreds, or his damage to the prized institutions of democracy. We are a needy people, and a large minority of us, it turns out, are excited by a large, brash personality who crashes through convention and waves his fist in the faces of more than half of his compatriots, plus most of the globe.
This infatuation with Trump’s autocratic bullying reveals a deep fault in American society. Coming when the country faces neither war, depression, rising crime, nor widespread terrorism, the readiness to be afraid is remarkable. Bedraggled families seeking refuge are “invaders.” Democrats threaten “mob rule.” Whites and men are victims. The world’s biggest economy is at the mercy of foreign countries. Imagine if the United States confronted actual risk, how vulnerable we would be to demagoguery—which can be a real danger in itself.
The search for heroes, then, can imperil security. It can let loose toxic impulses. It can undermine the constitutional system, which regards traditional institutions and venerable procedures, not individuals, as the protectors of the country’s freedoms. It can flit from one character to another, conferring Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame on the person of the moment.