The cult of personality is a term meaning the attempt by dictators to make themselves liked to the point of irrational reverence. Billboards on street corners are the most stereotypical kind, but the use of other media, notably televised broadcast, along with radio shows, can create a leader that seems strong but sensitive, like the case of Vladimir Putin. Or one can force an entire country to not comment on one’s haircut, like North Korea.
But sometimes a cult of personality can be homegrown in such an organic way that we do not even realize it until it arrives.
This occurred in the United States with Donald Trump.
After a video recording had Donald Trump’s voice articulating confidently that he liked to “grab women by the pussy,” the GOP was in a tailspin. Few people (except for the stalwart mathematicians) thought that Trump would take the helm, least of all Donald himself. In Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff reported that during the runoff, the presidential campaign was meant to increase awareness for his brand name. In other words, running was a marketing gimmick. To some extent this is corroborated in Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward. Both authors attempted to paint Trump as simultaneously a menacing tyrant and a pitiable blowhard, to little avail.
It seemed then, and seems now, that Donald Trump is incapable of criticism, to such an extent that Sam Harris laments that he could walk down any public street in D.C. and shoot a man in broad daylight and still remain president. Joe Rogan gave credit where credit was due about the sheer willpower (or narcissism) inherent in a man who looks at Mount Rushmore and wonders about the possibility of his face etched alongside them. What’s abundantly clear after four years is that many horrible moves were tolerated, while some were unexpected. Trump took advantage of the political decorum we were so used to, to the point that when the executive orders came in, we realized that there were in fact little to no precedents, and as such little to no laws.
I say all this because the convent at Oby has their own version of Trump in Prioress Joanna.
When it comes time to vote on the next prioress, people vote for Joanna out of some sense either of obligation, pity, or whimsy. When it turns out that she will actually be president…er…prioress of Oby, even the priest Sir Ralph groans. How did this happen? Their worries are that Joanna will send Dame Alice on them, a workaholic for the Lord. They had given Joanna the keys to get them back for all the shit they put her through.
In one of the strangest sections of the book so far, Joanna’s weird requests (like the one in this part of the chapter about their clothing) are not fought against with organized resistance.
Yet none of these vagaries provoked rebellion. It takes a strong character to create an opposition; and there was an inherent mediocrity in all the prioress’s ordinances which made them tolerable, and almost welcome. She supplied her community with something to talk about, and beguiled the tedium of convent life as a jester beguiles the tedium of life at court. Besides, all this was an interlude. She could not possibly live beyond another six months. When she was dead it would be time to take life seriously. She lived on for seven years.
Does this not serve as a near perfect 1:1 comparison to a man like Trump?
Woodward and Wolff tried to create a large personality out of Trump, and to be sure there is plenty of evidence of him at rallies and debates that proves he has a magnetism. But I would argue that this is excused as typical Americanism, the kind where people say, “Sure, he’s not the best talker, but he’s a great businessman.” It is his mediocrity that is weaponized. And it seems that his mediocrity travels at such a fast pace that it has exhausted a news cycle that cannot seem to make head nor tail of what he means. Zachary Wolf from CNN may have gotten closer than anybody else when he said the phrase, “What does Donald Trump mean when he says words?”
His statements do not function individually but in aggregate, causing such confusion and laughter that it is rendered as farce, much like a jester. Like prioress Joanna, Trump seems to not be a politician at all, but simply a jester-like commentator on what the United States Government is doing. In 2017, he tweeted on average four times a day.
In 2020, he tweets 32 times a day.
Even the remarks on Joanna’s health are relevant here! It’s incredible to imagine that Trump at his age and his lifestyle is still walking straight. Yet he has the energy and enthusiasm of a small boy, eating his McDonald’s, drinking his diet coke, and watching television. He goes golfing all the time! Compared to other presidents who physically degrade with each term, Donald gets a new set of batteries put in.
I did not mean to be so political with this short chapter in the middle of The Corner That Held Them, but the similarities in context and character were too close to ignore. Trump and Joanna are enigmas, and the exact criticisms levied against them also seem to be the very structures that keep them afloat. They remove any idea of the term “opportunity cost” from political process. In the middle ages, this is a better defense, as the time period was slow moving and slow changing, with a convent as the setting moving even slower. How much harm can Joanna do in a place where “harm” is at arm’s length?
But a modern nation-state like the United States?
Too many problems exist to allow mediocrity any quarter. Too many countries will suffer the fate of climate change as a result of American spending, construction, cattle raising, and transportation.
Too many nuclear devices exist to allow any sense of mediocrity to inveigle their way into setting one of these off.
Too many inhumane movements by countries are enabled by a mediocre president who not only demurs to dictators, but sends letters of admiration and approval to inhumane tactics!
Nothing is a guarantee in politics. Sometimes strong ideals create tepid effects.
Sometimes mediocrity produces extreme results.
In The Corner That Held Them, it has been ten years, finally, since Dame Isabella bequeathed her vineyard to the convent at Oby. When the nuns write, asking to begin pulling a stipend from Isabella’s donation, the family she came from balks. If she committed her life to Christ, and sacrificed all interactions with his earthly domain, what made them think she had any authority over the vineyard? They assumed Isabella’s will was sanguine without doing their homework.
Chapter 6 is about upsets, about not realizing the story has changed right underneath your feet. I don’t need to dwell on this topic long for you to get it. 2020 has been the biggest upset that we will likely see in this century. In 2016, mediocrity and revenge against expertise was in vogue. Now it cannot be. While prioress Joanna’s reign affects barely over a hundred souls, our current situation affects billions. The residual effects of personality are many, and the externalizations of who is harmed by policy is legion.
There is a very big difference between ability and personality. Let’s hope we understand that in choosing representatives in the foreseeable future.