I recently returned from vacation where I swore off keeping up with the news in favor of logging lots of swim time with the kids and diving into some fun books. Two of the books were fascinating memoirs, and, though seemingly unrelated, they coalesced in my mind once I tuned in to catch up on the latest goings on in these United States. A question emerged: Why are we continually duped by our politicians?
The first book was The Speechwriter, Barton Swaim’s account of his time working in the communications office of disgraced former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. The book is often a hilarious recounting of this Ph.D in English having to learn how to write poorly in order to sound like the governor and thus appease Sanford’s erratic rage and fury. But The Speechwriter ends with a serious question: “Why do we trust men who have sought and attained high office by innumerable acts of vanity and self-will?” (Swaim, 198). Swaim grants that we should honor good men and try to elect wise and principled men, but “once you think of them as wise and principled, you trust them, and at about the time you trust them, they undermine your trust and you’ve got to find someone else” (Swaim, 200). In short, his “brief education in politics”—the subtitle of the book—taught him that the answer to all our societal woes is not simply to elect to office the right people with the right ideas and to encourage them to act on those ideas. For the right people can fall at any moment, and often they are not in private who they seem to be in public.
The second book was Blood Will Out, novelist Walter Kirn’s recollection of his friendship with an eccentric New York millionaire named Clark Rockefeller. Or so he thought. Rockefeller turned out to be a conman, kidnapper, and murderer on the lam. The two met when Kirn set out on an odd errand to deliver a crippled dog from Montana to Rockefeller’s New York home. Kirn weaves an interesting story from threads of his own life, his times spent with Rockefeller, and from information that only emerged later during the murder trial. But one of the most compelling features of the book is Kirn trying to discern how it was that he was taken in. What was it about him that made him prone to believe the con? In spite of the many events and comments that did not add up, why did he trust his friend?
The issue of trust—and of being taken in—is what brought these two books together in my mind as I caught up on last week’s news. Let’s take the health care debate on Capitol Hill for an example. For seven years the Republicans have been campaigning to repeal and replace Obamacare. Yet, with the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress, we still have neither a repeal nor a replacement. John McCain campaigned as the candidate “leading the fight to stop Obamacare,” yet when the Senate finally voted last week on a “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Health Care Act, McCain gave a dramatic—and showy—thumbs down vote, sealing the repeal legislation’s fate and keeping the failed health care program in place. Also, it again makes the senator from Arizona the maverick darling in the eyes of the press, a fact that lends credence to Swaim’s assessment of accomplished politicians:
“Acclaim and attention were his highest aim—just as they are every determined politician’s aim: the praise, the fawning, the seriousness with which people take their remarks, the gaze of audiences, the way a crowded room falls silent when they enter” (Swaim, 203).
Speaking of men who love the crowds, President Trump was elected in part because of his reputation as an outsider, a businessman who can get things done. He projected himself as a master negotiator who literally wrote the book on the Art of the Deal. Yet, he’s been powerless to negotiate a health care bill. He spoke by telephone with Senator McCain shortly before the repeal vote and proved unsuccessful in persuading a senator from his own party to vote his way. So much for winning so much we’re gonna be tired of winning.
And, oh yeah, Planned Parenthood is still receiving taxpayer dollars. Thanks, Republican-controlled everything.
It’s not that Swaim’s “never trust a politician” conclusion is new; it’s actually cliché. We have politician jokes for a reason. So why do we keep getting conned? Why do we keep electing clichés? Walter Kirn craved approval and acceptance from the east coast elite, something he never attained as a Minnesotan at Princeton. That’s partly why he was duped. What about us as a people (regularly) keeps us from electing virtuous men to high office?
First, as has been said many times, we get the leaders we deserve. We have greedy, self-interested liars for politicians because we are greedy, self-interested liars. We have a representative form of government and our leaders, unfortunately, represent us accurately. We trust them because we see ourselves in them.
Second, we have a deep longing for deliverance. We know the suffering of the world and we want someone to fix it. We need someone to fix it, so much so that we will fall for anyone with promises as slick as their hair to “help” us. Having rejected Jesus, we opt for paper messiahs. But when the rains come, the ink runs and the paper globs, and we only have a bigger mess to clean up.
Third, good men tend to be busy frying bigger fish than politics, so the pool we have to draw from is smallish. The odds are in the con-artists’ favor. But, it turns out this is as it should be. To continue the food metaphor, politics are small potatoes. That God tasks our most trustworthy men with building and maintaining our intermediary institutions—home, churches, schools, local associations, and businesses—reminds us that we will not be saved by politicians. The real battleground is local: down the street, across the hall, and deep down in my own heart. If forced to choose, I would rather have an honest man in the pulpit than in the presidency. I would rather have a wise man lecturing in the classroom than pontificating on CNN as a congressman. I would rather have Dad sitting next to his family at his house than sitting in command at the White House. These intermediary institutions are the building blocks of our society and Christians must learn to give primary attention here. If we do so, we will raise virtuous men and women.
Then, maybe we can elect a few of them to office.