The Faith-Based Presidency
In tomorrow's NY Times Magazine, Ron Suskind has a powerful, and quite worrying article about George W Bush and his faith. Suskind has been working with and reporting on the Bush White House through the unique prism of those who have left the administration worrying about how too many decisions were made totally divorced from reality.
From Suskind's article, it appears that other Republicans are also starting to worry about Bush and how it appears that he has become convinced that he is infallible in his decisions and never has to second guess them because he is convinced that God has led him to the right decision. These Republicans believe that if George W Bush is elected, they will have an all out battle for the soul of the Republican party. I suspect that if Bush wins, these Republicans would be some of the first victims of a purge that purifies the party to carry on God's work in this crusade that Bush and his most ardent followers are waging.
Some of the most worrying things about the article is how it reinforces some of the things I found most unsettling about Bush's rush to war. No matter what the evidence, Bush was going to go to war because God was working through him.
Mar 2003: At the recent prayer breakfast, Mr. Bush indicated again that he sees himself as an instrument of a higher authority. "Events aren't moved by blind change and chance," he said. "Behind all of life and all of history, there's a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God.'"
As Suskind reports, this belief that God is working through him has only gotten stronger. His followers reinforce that belief. And those around him have abdicated from their obligation to remind him that he is human and not God, therefore someone who is capable of error and mistakes. (Emphasis mine.)
The disdainful smirks and grimaces that many viewers were surprised to see in the first presidential debate are familiar expressions to those in the administration or in Congress who have simply asked the president to explain his positions. Since 9/11, those requests have grown scarce; Bush's intolerance of doubters has, if anything, increased, and few dare to question him now. A writ of infallibility -- a premise beneath the powerful Bushian certainty that has, in many ways, moved mountains -- is not just for public consumption: it has guided the inner life of the White House.
This belief that he is incapable of error as well as the multitude of followers who affirm that he is acting for God were precisely the signs that were so worrying before the start of the war. As time passes, it is obvious that Bush is becoming more convinced of his righteousness rather than less. If he wins the election, I believe this fantasy and hubris will only become worse.
Reading Suskind's article today made me once more search out what was so unsettling about the idea of a man, a very fallible man, leading a horde of true believers through the next four years when his basic instincts are so wrong on so many things. What are the consequences of true believers following a man who cannot doubt and cannot adjust to changing circumstances?
The definitive book on true believers was written over fifty years ago by Eric Hoffer: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. As one of the better reviewers of this book summarized:
The True Believer_ by Eric Hoffer is a short though rather intense and pithy book. His basic premise is that there are traits common to all mass movements, whether they are religious, social, or nationalist in nature. He stresses that while not all movements - and followers of such mass movements, the titular true believer - are identical nevertheless (be they Communism, the French Revolution, Islam, or Christianity) all share certain essential characteristics. He also stresses that he is not making value judgments; that while few would dispute that Nazism was evil many mass movements produced positive benefits (for instance the rapid modernization of Japan and Turkey would not have been possible without a revivalist nationalist movement).
The true believer in any mass movement shares many key characteristics. One is that he or she is discontented and blames the world for his or her problems. Second is that he possesses some sense of power, whether real or imagined (those who are in awe of the world he wrote do not think of change, no matter how miserable); the true believer is not destitute, as those who are living hand-to-mouth, unsure of food on a daily basis, don't join mass movements. Moreover, this power comes from some powerful doctrine or infallible leader and through these things the believer feels he has power. Third, the true believer has a great deal of faith in the future, that he believes that tremendous change is possible. Fourth, the true believer is inexperienced, that generally he is nearly completely ignorant of the difficulties involved in a movement's massive undertakings.
...For a mass movement to come to pass, three types of leaders at different stages are required. More often than not, each of these leaders is a different person. First is the man of words, an articulate and intelligent person who undermines faith in the existing order and sets the stage for a mass movement. When conditions are ripe the second leader, the fanatic, appears, one who is comfortable in a world of chaos and is not interested in reform but rather revolution, moving beyond mere dialogue - however important - and enacting real change. However, while a mass movement is pioneered by the man of words and materialized by the fanatic, it is consolidated by the man of action, a person who has experience and can consolidate and stabilize the gains made by fanatics. Those movements that lack this person can burn out, destroyed in trying to achieve ever more impossible goals. The man of action saves a movement from suicidal dissensions and the recklessness of fanatics.
The fanatism of George W Bush is becoming increasingly visible as he becomes further removed from reality and as fewer are willing to question his reasons or his decisions. One does not have to question the motives of George W Bush to worry deeply about the consequences of letting him believe he is infallible and does not need to look at reality. As I noted before, Mao also thought he was doing the right thing when his decisions created the worst famine in the 20th century. Mao also did not suffer being questioned ever.
Our modern world is facing two implacable threats based on the fanatism of mass movements facing off against each other, but joined in their mutual hatred of the modern heathen world. Those of us in between these fanatics must find ways to defuse and defang them or face the consequences of granting them power over our futures.
As a final thought, please read this to see how one of the 20th century's worst human tragedies illuminates the dangers of the unfettered mass movement. Rational people have the right to worry about true believers because they can be so destructive to the societies they consume.