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.
Athletes and actors might satisfy the star-struck, for a time. Polemicists and politicians might fuel the admiration of those who share their views. Combat veterans might tap a well of regard and gratitude. But nothing can take the place of a so-called figure against the sky, a maker of history who can apply wisdom to the cause of justice—a Nelson Mandela, a Vaclav Havel, an Abraham Lincoln, a Martin Luther King, Jr. If heroism has any transcendent quality, it is the mobilization of morality--not just the personal ethic of a leader, but the capacity to energize the heart that glows within the citizenry.
That is what America lacks. It is not enough to condemn President Trump, as easy as it is. His careful cultivation of his outsized public personality, with the help of his propaganda machines in Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, and the Republican Party, awards his followers with a false feeling of triumph, even a misplaced sense of righteousness. He could not do it in isolation. He swims with a current in society. For millions of Americans, he fills part of the void.
But where is the mobilization of morality? Where are the leaders who can stir the honorable passions of America? Where are the clergy? Where are the teachers? Where are the corporate executives, the university presidents, the scoutmasters, the lawyers, the physicians, the grassroots models of probity? Where are the television editors and anchors who still believe in letting the unbiased facts inform the public discourse? Where are the candidates for office who put the country ahead of party, whose principles reach beyond their own victories?
They exist, of course, but largely unseen in the broad, national landscape. They work quietly in their smaller circles of influence, mostly excluded from the larger public square whose ground is held by scoundrels of assorted stripes.
That is why George H. W. Bush, in death, has drawn such excessive flattery. As the historian David Greenberg noted in Politico, Bush’s political record bears some nasty scars of opportunism: He opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He conducted an ugly 1988 presidential campaign featuring the racist Willie Horton ad, and implied a lack of patriotism by his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, for accepting the rule of law: a state supreme court opinion that found unconstitutional the requirement of public-school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Bush’s 1992 campaign was snarky as well, casting aspersions on Bill Clinton’s patriotism for opposing the Vietnam War and visiting Moscow.
Bush had no trouble shifting on major issues for short-term gain, as Greenberg observes. He abandoned his support of abortion rights and flipped to endorse the fraudulent, supply-side economic theory that favored the rich and had earned his earlier denunciation as “voodoo economics.” He nominated an unqualified right-wing ideologue (and sexual harasser), Clarence Thomas, to fill the Supreme Court seat that had been occupied by the towering Thurgood Marshall.
Bush did little to restrain his party’s race to the right; he mostly rode the wave. He helped legitimize the extremists Roger Ailes, who later led Fox, and Lee Atwater as they helped take the Republicans down into the gutter of radicalism. Bush may have detested Trump, but Trump is the natural result of Bush’s earlier accommodation to the unsavory trends in the party’s ranks.
In a symptom of our hunger, however, we have now nourished ourselves with hymns to Bush’s courtesy, moderation, calm, international collaboration, and his support of bipartisan steps such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. These are all facts and truths, testifying to the human complexity of leaders who are rarely one-dimensional. Bush was known as a good listener; a cultivator of multinational consensus (witness the unprecedented coalition he assembled against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait); and a sober-minded sophisticate about the intricacies of foreign affairs. Flaws and all, he sure looks good from the troubling perspective of the Trump era.
In short, we want heroes. We don’t have any. So we have to make them up.