Conversing with a priest recently, the conversation turned naturally to Trump, his wall and policies against migrants. He concluded by stating that in spite of all this Trump had Christian qualities, being anti-abortion.
I did not challenge the priest on Trump’s Christian virtue. However, it gave me food for thought. Can the infamy an individual brings on himself and his country with his many divorces, philanderings, lies, disrespect for individuals and entire communities be swept aside for a debatable virtue, Christian or otherwise?
The diktats of religious and ideological mores are powerful enough to bestow a cloak of invisibility to Trumps follies. These are transformational powers too, converting an ignorant, egoistical man into a champion of the masses. His supporters refuse to acknowledge and even see his warts, instead accusing others of faulty eyesight.
In India, it is no different. The paeans doing the rounds about Narendra Modi and his policies be they demonetisation or surgical strikes sound off-key to many.
By giving a lot of rope and protecting those in power representing their beliefs, followers not only preserve and promote their ideology but also safeguard their own sense of purpose and identity. Are followers converting their political leaders into religious figures? In the US, the Christian right are avid followers of Trump. In India the Hindu right believe Modi can do no wrong.
No doubt the concept of ‘echo chamber’ has found much use in the recent past to explain socio-political polarisation. But there are psychological underpinnings too. Evolution ensures we battle against that which threatens us including differing ideologies and philosophies. It could also explain why people do not like to admit their mistakes and instead choose to entrench themselves in their position. This results in Motivated Reasoning, or coming to conclusions we already favour, which is influenced by our Moral Foundations which is the stable gut level morals people use as lenses to see the world. This results in people being Unashamed for their Prejudices, making the dehumanisation of others permissible. Thus the increasing racism in the US and the atrocities against the oppressed in India, the coining of ‘basket of deplorables’ and other terms like‘fake news’, ‘sickular’, ‘libtards’ liberally used to tarnish, discount and overwhelm counter-views.
Interestingly, both these leaders have redefined the concepts of leadership. Being scandal free, unbiased, having foresight, being accountable, taking responsibility for mistakes, empowering others all seem irrelevant. The ability to make bombastic statements and shoot from somebody else’s shoulder, peddle simplistic jingoistic nationalism are some of the accepted new values for a leader.
When Joseph de Maistre said ‘In a democracy people get the leaders they deserve’ he was alluding to leadership reflecting the health of society. However, today the relationship is symbiotic. Leaders derive strength from their political base while the base is inspired by the leader’s words, actions and silence to push the envelope further.
Given that political humor is being throttled, avenues for distorting news has multiplied, protest and dissent is viewed as anti-national, people are being told what to eat and who to love, are leaders and their followers working towards what Walter Benjamin termed the aestheticization of politics?
*Samir Nazareth is the author of 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People. He tweets at @samirwrites