Getting Beyond Politics as Idolatry—And that Means the Left as Well as the Right

What do we in the U.S. learn from the last four years as we look to the future? One of the most important lessons concerns the mythologizing of leadership—the importance of getting beyond politics as idolatry. The task of moving past obsessive perceptions of Donald Trump highlights the needed learning, one that applies ultimately to both the Right and the Left. 

For a great many people on the Right, the relationship with the past president over the last four years has been a cult of personality. He has become a mythologized figure—psychologically, in effect, a god. It is understandable, then, that moving on might be difficult. We benefit in immediate ways when we make someone a god. We become “chosen people,” and a complex and too often uncertain world gets reduced to a much more manageable black and white. 

But moving on will be essential to a Republican Party able to function effectively and to contribute to a healthy democratic system in the decades ahead. And for an ultimately positive outcome, the task must be not just to get over Mr. Trump, but to recognize the major dangers that come with mythologized/cultish belief. Without this further step, in decades ahead we will only see some further version of the same—and possibly a more dangerous version. To effectively advance, the U.S. needs a healthy Republican party, one able to maturely represent traditional conservative values. 

A person might assume that letting go would be much easier for the Left—and hopefully they can get on with doing so soon. But by virtue of our past president’s personality, he has been able to evoke a response from the Left that is no less mythologized. The flip side of making someone a god is making them the devil. And doing so is no less self-serving—and for all of the same reasons. I’ve been disappointed at the degree respected liberal colleagues over the last four years have ended up having Mr. Trump become a worm in their brains who coopts their attention and distracts them from thinking about much else. And the same applies not just to people who I know personally, but also to a major portion of the liberal media, such as many writers for the New York Times and numerous public media commentators. Making someone a devil is no less idolatry and no less seductive. And it can end up being just as hard to let go of.

Before he was nominated, I made clear that I felt Mr. Trump was of questionable psychological health and in no way qualified to be President. This has proven to be the case. But in reaching these conclusions I was not mythologizing, I was just making the kinds of observations that I make every day as a psychiatrist. And while I have kept an eye on goings on in Washington DC in my role as cultural psychiatrist—and now and then included comments on events on my blog—I have not wasted very much of my creative energy thinking about him. Most of his actions were wholly predictable. And looking back, while much took place during his time in office that I find significantly concerning, I’m grateful that he was not able to do more damage than he was. He was simply not a sufficiently competent leader to get a lot accomplished.  

For me, one of the saddest things in these times of division is the degree polarized beliefs and unrecognized mythologized assumptions are dividing families and driving wedges between friends. It is understandable for this to happen when people have obviously opposite beliefs. But personally I’ve found it even more often the case where beliefs might seem generally aligned. I am most likely to vote for Democratic party candidates. But I’ve lost valued friendships among liberals over the last four years for simply suggesting that constantly obsessing about Trump was not a good use of their attention. I trust that these people will move on in time. But the damage is real and sad. 

Ultimately, the circumstance for those on the Left is not that different from what I have described for those on the Right. If those who have made Mr. Trump a devil don’t recognize that they were just as much caught in a cult of belief as those they criticize, in a similar way, in decades ahead they are likely to only again fall for the same kind of trap. In the end, the challenge is the same all the way around. 

In my book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, I emphasized that the distinction between mythologizing leadership and simply evaluating leadership—even where conclusions are extreme—is huge. A key characteristic of the kind of leadership (and with this followership) needed going forward is that we relate to leaders simply as people—and in the case of presidents, people with a very difficult job. Anything else is to give one’s power away and inevitably to end up with simple-answer ideological beliefs that distort the truth. In an additional book to be released in late Spring, Perspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord, I focus on a further result particularly pertinent to our time—how such idolatry dangerously amplifies division. Today presents a good time for people of all political stripes to reflect on tendencies they might have to mythologize leadership and on what moving beyond their particular versions of this now antiquated dynamic asks of them.