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.
Amy Klobuchar appears to be a sweet Minnesota girl, but is she secretly a crazed, potentially abusive harpy? Elizabeth Warren holds herself out to be a wonky economic populist … so then why did she dabble in all that bonkers Native American ancestry stuff? Kamala Harris says she’s a genuine liberal, but she was also a brutally tough prosecutor. Cory Booker is trying too hard to be an Obama reboot. Beto O’Rourke seems like he could be the real thing, except that he also seems like he was hatched in an underground lab to simply seem like the real thing. Kirsten Gillibrand says she’s a feminist but she was for gun rights before she was against them, and Julián Castro is Hispanic but he also might be too Hispanic, but then is Kamala Harris really black enough and don’t get me started on Sherrod Brown and whether he’s a folksy blue-collar guy or just a rumpled blue-collar guy.
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. 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.
Think back to the core attacks against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Not only was she tarred as a rich person pretending to be a poor person, and a war person pretending to be a peace person, but she was also unerringly slammed as being some version of “guarded,” “secretive,” “evasive,” and, above all other things, “inauthentic.” There are thousands of articles and entire books devoted to Clinton’s alleged “authenticity” problem, and indeed, of all the fake scandals that stuck to her like glue, the apotheosis was the claim that she had used a private server as secretary of state and deleted emails before handing her files over to State Department record-keepers. She was thus confirmed, in the popular imagination, to be a keeper of secrets, a hider of truths, a chameleon always shifting with the political winds, as she held her true self away from our gaze. There is something profoundly and almost pathologically American about the fear of being fooled by our leaders into believing they are someone they are not, and this was at the core of the fears surrounding her potential presidency.
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 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.
Which brings us back to the current internecine warfare into which we are about to descend, as we rend a whole bunch of more or less genuine people to bits because they come to us with complicated stories. In order to even believe in them, we need to wrestle them down into paper dolls. We can hardly help it, which is part of how we ended up with the monomaniacal sociopath we have in office. He may have no idea how to do the job, but at least he says only what he means, which was Lionel Trilling’s original definition of authenticity.
Is this a uniquely American thing? In his landmark work The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter laid out how the “modern” (it was 1964) right wing was obsessed with the ways in which American virtues had been corroded by “cosmopolitans and intellectuals” and that these entities infiltrated American capitalist and government institutions by way of schemes and plots and cunning dual loyalties. This paranoid fear of forgers and fakers has combined, as Hofstadter predicted it would, with mass media and modern consumer culture to create an American political shopper who is as desperate for branded authenticity as she is afraid of fakery. It isn’t simply that Donald Trump is a reality show’s idea of an authentic and fully realized character; it’s that anyone too complicated to be slotted into a reality show trope of personality types is now irredeemably inauthentic.
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.