“Hell,” as Thomas Hobbes astutely noted several centuries ago, “is truth glimpsed too late.” As in the case of Barack H. Obama, self-anointed messiah? I should certainly imagine so.
By the end of the first year of Obama’s second term, a majority of Americans had pretty much caught on to their President’s unmatched gift for posturing and overpromising. (“If you like your [healthcare] plan, you can keep it,” etc., etc., etc.) Glimpsed too late to prevent all the injuries inflicted on the American polity since January 2009, the truth about Obama’s megalomania is nevertheless worth recounting, as a warning against . . . ourselves.
Now wait a minute. Ourselves? Seems a little rich, doesn’t it? Isn’t Obama the topic and target? Only nominally, I would say. Only as a discussion-starter.
Megalomaniacal, boastful, self-adoring, vainglorious politicians go hand in hand as it were with rapturous crowds and audiences. Such as the one in St. Paul, Minnesota, that celebrated with candidate Obama, June 4, 2008, his attainment of enough delegates to assure him the Democratic presidential nomination. The shouts of praise were intense as the victorious nominee-to-be began praising himself and his intentions.
“I face this challenge with profound humility and knowledge of my own limitations,” he began, conventionally enough, after the old candidate’s custom of identifying with those ordinary, fallible folks known as voters. Then the TelePrompTer scrolled. There had been by this time enough humility for a single acceptance speech. The candidate, from this point, practically broke his arm patting himself on the back. “I am absolutely certain,” said he, “that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when . . . the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” It was also when a sudden onset of nausea began driving many Americans to places affording quick relief. However, that wasn’t the national take on the great event in St. Paul in 2008. The national take was Wow! Woo! Whee! What a guy! You could tell from the thunderous shouts of acclamation as the candidate spoke what kind of election this was going to be—one premised on exuberance and hope over against skepticism. The skeptics lost, as did their more hardened kin, the cynics.
The tribulations of the past five years—summed up in a way by the disaster known as Healthcare.gov—are too many to enumerate or analyze individually. Enumeration is not my present purpose anyway, that purpose being to remark on the seemingly bottomless appetite of particular electors for the self-assured and impatient, the vain and puffed-up, the scrawlers of easy promissory notes for achievements unlimited by fate or circumstance.
Am I saying that we the people brought Barack Obama on ourselves? Kind of. But that’s not all. The historic human tendency to overevaluate political leaders, especially potential ones, requires more notice than it commonly receives. We are not on freshly trodden ground when it comes to dealing with the hubris of Barack H. Obama. Our ancestors’ footsteps have worn deep paths in the terrain. We might desire one of these days to take a closer look.
The hubris of the political class stems from two factors: basic human fallibility coupled with the human tendency to seek political saviors. The two factors, in fact, overlap. We seek political saviors because of some inborn resistance to the notion that human saviors aren’t precisely thick on the ground around here. “O put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man,” the Psalmist counsels,
for there is no help in them. For when the breath of man goeth forth he shall turn again to his earth, and then all his thoughts perish. Blessed is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, and whose hope is in the Lord his God . . .
Than which no better political advice is to be found—anywhere. Nevertheless, the human itch for power, or the desire that power be deployed for the relief of this or that necessity, commonly overcomes scruples of all kinds.
The power to compel obedience is the most tempting, and most abused, of powers. “Make me!”—the old fourth-grade playground taunt—crumbles at authority’s rebuke.
“All right, then, I’ll make you,” is the retort of the powerful.
Human political relationships require something of the sort, for the proper functioning of society. The modern sort of politician—the Barack Obama sort—isn’t content with mere functioning: the proper blinking of traffic lights, the efficient provision of military might as a caution to adversaries far and wide. The modern sort of politician wants overhaul, according to his individual vision. He’s Louis Napoleon, commanding Baron Haussmann to tear apart Paris and rebuild in the imperial manner.
The seeker of power is a type apart from the common run: a candidate not just for high office but for suspicion on the part of the careful citizen. The power-seeker knows; he understands; he has visions imparted to few others—perhaps to no one else. There can be merit here. “I am sure I can save this country, and no one else can,” William Pitt the Elder declared with admirable frankness at a dicey moment for British fortunes against the French. He did what he had said he could do. Of Churchill, similar things might be said. Personal aggrandizement is not at stake in such cases. The aggrandizing ways of contemporary politicians center on plans for making the society they represent—supposedly—into just the sort of place they think others should inhabit. They are Louis Napoleon on steroids.
So also with the presidential candidate who proposed to slow the rise of the oceans. (King Canute, call your office!) The Obama White House, with the collaboration of Congress, has taken over the healthcare sector of the American economy, put a bigger-than-ever federal foot into the financial sector, discouraged freer choice in public education, and undertaken a campaign against those combustible fuels whose use stands in the way of slowing the rise of the oceans. So much for the public’s right to promote in a responsible way its own ends and objectives. The Democratic regime in Washington, D.C., has its own ideas, thank you, as to proper ends and objectives.
What meat is this on which our Caesar feeds, that he knows so much better than others precisely the things that we need? The adoring crowd in St. Paul, Minnesota, must have been right: What a guy! Except, naturally, for ObamaCare and like items that reinforce and entrench the truth that power is to be ladled out with care and caution to those who appear to understand its limitations and rank temptations.
The nagging point here is one to which I have alluded: There is among us shockingly little appreciation—until truth is glimpsed too late—of the general fallibility of nearly all those who portray themselves as great. You never know about human beings in their capacity as supporters or dispensers of power. The meat on which Julius Caesar dined daily—power, order, competence—smelled pleasant enough to Romans who liked the conquests he effected and the order at which he contrived, against the high-minded hopes of Brutus and the low-minded cunning of Cassius and Casca.
The Obama phenomenon shocks a little less when figured into the voters’ role as enablers of the Obama vision. The democratic process, we are invited to remember regularly, guarantees nothing more than the right of participation: not of intelligent, informed, constructive participation; just participation. That’s all. For the ideal—the careful, thoughtful sifting of evidence, with ear cocked attentively for the noises emitted by swindlers and egomaniacs—well, we know about ideals, don’t we? Too often scoffed at, too infrequently realized. The Obama phenomenon as worked out over the past five years imperils the civility and civilization of the United States—this is true. It seems also true that a chance awaits us in consequence. We know now some of the consequences of our inattention to the finer points of political rhetoric: the overinflated promises of an overinflated maker of promises, in closer touch with the itchings and perversities of his own nature—the needs and satisfaction he himself craves—than with the authentic needs of those whose votes he asks.
The sickliest, saddest part of modern politics is the success of second-raters like Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, owing to the gullibility of many who see themselves as models of cool reflection. Cool reflection—oh, yeah: the state of mind, ignoring history, ignoring experience, ignoring common sense, which laps up enormous promises and designs with never an unseemly hiccup. We’re all in this thing together, folks, I am telling you.