HOW THE CULT OF PERSONALITY IS DESTROYING DEMOCRACY
There’s a discussion exercise that I like to do in some of my classes, either when I’m talking about American history, politics or media studies. In this exercise, more or less extended, depending on the class, I ask my students if Abraham Lincoln could be elected president today.
To really dig into this question, of course, one must disregard everything that we know about “Lincoln.” There was no reason to believe, in the summer of 1860, that the candidate from Illinois, with no more than a single term in Congress for experience, would be the “Lincoln” lauded in history books today.
Of course, we would have to take his actual policy positions and put them into a contemporary context. Lincoln ran a campaign that was rather
squishy moderate when it came to slavery. He never acknowledged racial equality and was willing to accept the existence of slavery where it already existed in the states as condoned in the Constitution. He was against extending slavery into the territories. Is this an indicator of his willingness to compromise over civil rights issues? Perhaps. More likely it was a play toward what has become known as the uninspiring “politics of the possible” espoused by President Obama.
Furthermore, Lincoln supported raising protectionist tariffs, which would cause prices to increase and protect industrialists. He favored the Homestead Act, a major government handout of land, as well as investment in infrastructure, most notably the transcontinental railroad. He was an advocate for the wage system of “free labor,” but also expressed support for labor over capital. So, a tax and spend liberal, if you would.
But, come on. Policy is sooooooo boring. Nobody really pays attention to that stuff anyway. They vote for the person they like the best or dislike the least in some cases. Could Abraham Lincoln have made the cut?
Lincoln may have looked acceptable on paper, but he wasn’t made for tv. Tall and gaunt, he wasn’t particularly attractive. That, in and of itself, isn’t a deal breaker. After all, take a look a the squishy orange we have in the Oval Office now. His voice was described as, “shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant.” He had a disconcerting way of shifting from mirthful to melancholy and his humor was often quirky and irregular. On the other hand, his mannerisms when speaking often enhanced his speaking. According to Marshall Snow in Intimate Memories of Lincoln, “He had not spoken ten minutes until everybody was carried away. We forgot all about his looks.” Of course, this was a retrospective and may have been influenced by what Lincoln became rather than what Lincoln was. Regardless, if it takes ten minutes to forget about a candidate’s looks, that’s too long in our click and switch society.
Furthermore, Lincoln was a debater, not a rhetorician. He tended to frame his arguments in terms of logic, as a lawyer may be inclined. This might play well on the debate team but does not make for good soundbites.
Though Lincoln is often described as being well-liked and charismatic, does this translate to telegenic. If Abraham Lincoln were to take to the podium on a televised debate with, say, Oprah, how would he be received?
In 1960, then Vice President Richard Nixon participated in the first televised presidential debate in history with then-Senator John F. Kennedy. We all know how that turned out. When it came to experience and political acumen, Nixon had the advantage. Kennedy, on the other hand, had the poise and the charm. (Nixon was also, reportedly suffering from the flu, exhaustion and a bad knee). Regardless, when the numbers were crunched, despite both candidates expressing relatively similar views, those who watched the televised debates saw Kennedy as the clear winner while the radio audience gave Nixon a slight edge.
Now there might be other explanations for Kennedy’s win that night, but the bottom line remains that his telegenic qualities were widely accepted as his winning qualities. Not his positions. Not his performance. Not his intellect. Certainly not the logically precise way he argued. His camera-ready charisma was credited for the win. Thus was born the modern Cult of Personality in American politics. Now presidents are surrounded by a coterie of PR professionals who script his every move to protect his “image.”
Now, image is everything. Mass media made the Cult of Personality possible. Nobody knew this better than the fascist dictators of the 1930’s using newsreels and movies to present their image. Joseph Goebbels and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl elevated the Cult of Personality to high art. But the advent of television made the Cult of Personality mundane, an everyday aspect of our lives as constant as white noise. Thus, I would argue, it became even more insidious.
So we don’t even raise an eyebrow when Shaun King, writing in The Intercept, offered four things that a Democratic candidate will need in 2020 in order to beat The Orange Don.
- An enormous social media following across all platforms.
- An established, core base of support that already exists. They need to be able to pack a stadium without Beyoncé or Bruce Springsteen opening up.
- The ability to present a strong contrast in character and personality to Trump.
- A history of organizing people, because the Democratic Party is a mess.
There it is. Nothing about strong, progressive policies or innovative platform. Nothing about a history of successful public service and commitment to working Americans. No. The candidate of 2020 must be someone who can present a better image on a mass scale walking into the election.
King’s first nominee? Oprah Winfrey. Certainly, Oprah has all of those qualities and more. He then made other suggestions, Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders and, with caveats, Joe Biden. Oprah, however, was the standout because of her social media presence and a Rasmussen Poll showing she would beat Trump by 10 points.
What about Abraham Lincoln? Could he make the cut? He was a one-term national politician, popular within his own nascent party and with a regional following, certainly not a national reputation. Could he fill a stadium without JayZ, The Boss or Beyoncé? (I just want you to take a break and picture Honest Abe at Madison Square Garden sharing the stage with JayZ, Bruce, and the E-Street Band, Max Weinberg pounding out the backbeat, Beyoncé running through the scales, Mary Todd trying not to lose it. Would he be standing there, smiling politely or rocking out Al Gore-style?) I don’t see 1860 Abe filling MSG.
What about Number 3, presenting a strong contrast in character to the Pussy Grabber in Chief? After all, if Lincoln is known for anything, it wsa the strength of his character. There’s that. But do you suppose Abraham Lincoln could survive the FoxNoise/Sinclaire/Limbaugh/Republican PR blitz that would drive all reporting throughout 2019 and 20? A tax and spend liberal Lincoln who associates with socialists and black radical terrorists and put our troops in jeopardy by questioning the legitimacy of an lawfully declared war? Could he withstand Russian hackers releasing his psych records and history with Prozac? What about his wife? What about his religious affiliations? He said “God” a lot, but what church did the guy who said, “The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession,” belong to? Hey, didn’t he share a bed with a dude one time? Hmm.
Not a chance. Abraham Lincoln, if he could get enough superdelegates away from Cory Booker or Kamala Harris to win the primary, he would stand almost no chance in a modern presidential election.
So does that leave us with Oprah? Alas, no. The media mogul has admitted that a presidential campaign is a bit more than she could stomach. I guess we’ll have to find another qualified candidate. But who?