When nobody is looking
June 22, 2023
So far there are about a dozen Republican candidates wanting to be President of the United States of America and most of them are as incensed over the legal threats facing Donald Trump as only a scheming hypocrite can be. The two notable exceptions are former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has significant issues with believability himself, and Asa Hutchinson, former governor of Arkansas, who actually appears to be a decent man. They are not running against Trump, no, no, no. They are running to be President, and the fact that Trump is running, too, is just a strange coincidence. None of them claim any ability to be better than Trump. He is their idol, too. They are just… what? They don’t know, either.
They hope that they are lucky. None of them are leaders in the true sense of the word. They are followers who hope adopting public sentiment, which they may or may not share, will put them in the political driver’s seat. They look at the polls that tell them about Republicans’ anger and beliefs and adopt those angers and beliefs as their own, and by this become what I call follower-leaders.
And here is the question I have about most of them. What do they stand for when nobody’s looking? We know what they say they stand for in front of reporters and voters, but when they go into their room and shut the door and talk with their God (Matthew 6:6 if you’re curious), what do they pray for?
What I want that to be is that they ask for a dream, a vision, of how to make things better for all Americans and that that vision does not divide Americans into “us” and “them.” I want them to ask for personal principles and the strength to not lightly compromise them. I want a person who seeks the power of the office to lead, not to follow.
This is the crux of my concern; by exploiting voters’ anger for their own political gain politicians become followers who lead. Because it seems that the winning right-wing politician has to out-outrage all the others to be noticed, they are taking a position that is bad for the country as a whole and in which they themselves do not believe. So, they get elected, then what? They cannot back down from their outrage because that will anger their public. They cannot coast on their statements because that will annoy their base. No, they have to up the ante and create new outrage. They have to escalate the anger.
If there are people who want to be leaders by exploiting a public anger which they, themselves, do not share, that means that they seek powerful positions for the power alone. And then the question is, to do what? That “what” has to do with that little conversation with their private God, and I fear that it might have been a pretty shallow conversation.
I have always believed that elected officials could do a good job if they are not looking at winning the next election. It is easy for the winner of an election to want to position himself for the next one and in order to do that it is attractive to think that by taking positions that they do not truly believe in they can win that next election and then have the freedom to vote their conscience once they are re-elected. It doesn’t happen. Once you compromise your principles it just becomes easier to do it again, and harder and harder to stand for what you used to believe in. That’s how Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey put it when he voted against the Amendment to criminalize burning the American flag which he had fought under and for in Viet Nam and which, to him, stood for our constitutionally protected freedom of speech.
There is a way out. If they do get elected under false pretenses and want to change their mind, they could follow the lead of former Louisiana Governor Earl Long. When Long vetoed a bill that he had promised a lobbyist to support, the lobbyist asked what he could tell his clients. “Tell them I lied,” said Long.
Montana Viewpoint has appeared in weekly and online newspapers across Montana for over 25 years. Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.