I’m voting for the authentic  candidate

Oh man this Dahlia Lithwick piece on the search for authenticity in our political candidates is so good.  My only complaint is that she tends to blame the American public, but far as I can tell, this is mostly an obsession of journalists more so than ordinary voters (and believe me, I’m not afraid to blame ordinary voters).  Anyway…

The launch of the 2020 presidential contest has triggered yet another round of uniquely American anxiety around the stability of character.
We’re only a few weeks into the nascent primary campaign, and already the public discourse is mired in a debate that seems to be consumed with which of the Democratic candidates is in fact tricking us…

It is deeply strange, this American fixation with political “authenticity.” We would rather have a flat, one-dimensional stick figure run for office than sit with the possibility that human beings are multifaceted and evolving and—by necessity and design—apt to show different faces to different people over the course of a political lifetime. [emphases mine] This transcends the much-ballyhooed American proclivity to prefer presidents whom they can have a beer with. It’s not so much that we want a president who is like us; it’s that we abhor the notion that our politicians may appear to be one thing sometimes but are something totally different at other times…

Consider too that Clinton’s two rivals—Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—were exactly and unfailingly who they held themselves out to be. Both are, in a way, perfectly authentic, right down to Sanders’ practice of delivering the exact same speech over and over again. Donald Trump is even more “authentic,” as measured by that standard: We know exactly who he is, exactly what he will say, and exactly how he will react in virtually every setting. He has held himself out as a money-and-image-obsessed billionaire who “does deals” and “loves America” and virtually never departs from performing that one TV-burnished character, whether he’s bigfooting his way through foreign policy or shutting down the federal government because he deems its workers basically useless. Indeed, Trump’s few inauthentic moments have come whenever he’s tried to play anything but that character, be it when he’s tethered to a teleprompter or talking about compassion.

Trump’s careful tending to the hackneyed Monopoly Man caricatures seems to prove that the voter’s quest for authenticity is in fact easily satisfied by flat caricature. In Trump’s case, there’s something extra perverse about the caricature he affects, which is, essentially, his opposite. He isn’t as rich as he holds himself out to be, isn’t as religious as he holds himself out to be, isn’t as competent as he holds himself out to be, and isn’t as youthful or healthy as he holds himself out to be. In fact, his claims about his tan, his hair, his weight, his work habits, his intelligence, and his religious zeal are all delivered with a kind of winking, over-the-top braggadocio that might just convey that you and he are actually colluding on the joke, except that so many people aren’t in on it. In a way, Donald Trump’s political success can be attributed to the fact that, above all else, he holds himself out as authentic by sticking to his limited menu of invented traits (“businessman” and “tough” and “manly”), reveling in their transparent phoniness and repeating them so frequently that they come to appear genuine. He is, in short, the most cunningly crafted, authentic forgery in U.S. political history.

The truth is that the current field of Democratic nominees is full of messy and complicated individuals. That’s fine. It is one thing to demand that political leaders be consistent and coherent about policy. It is something else entirely to demand “authenticity” in the form of being either familiar enough to be a cartoon character or completely uncomplicated in all matters of character and temperament. Before we begin to trash people who haven’t even begun to become the leaders we hope for, let’s recognize that this kind of fundamentalism helped bring us a president who can only be counted on to never surprise us at all.

 

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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