In 2017, I attended the closing dinner of Mitt Romney’s annual summit in Park City, Utah. It was an impressive event held at the Stein Ericksen Lodge. Influential politicians (mostly, but not entirely, Republicans), cable news talking heads, and the peculiars (as I’ve come to call them) who donate large sums of money to political campaigns were in attendance.
I felt like a kid lost at the zoo — staring at all the exotic animals, hoping my parents would show up to take me home. As a guest, I’m uncomfortable listing everyone in attendance, primarily because I don’t remember or care. I will tell you that Ana Navarro was there for some reason.
I was there to talk to a political consultant. My friend was thinking of running for Congress, and I’d taken it upon myself to vet potential campaign managers. While I did end up talking to the consultant, given my lack of any role whatsoever in any sort of campaign, the conversation didn’t last long. I couldn’t answer a single follow-up question.
The guest of honor that evening was Joe Biden. If you’ll recall, Donald Trump was serving his first year as president. The group gathered this particular evening didn’t seem to care for that fact, which is likely why it didn’t seem strange that Biden and Romney were scheduled to close the event with a one-on-one fireside chat.
Just a few years earlier, during the 2012 presidential campaign, then-Vice President Biden told a group of primarily African-Americans that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney planned to “put y’all back in chains.”
Of course, there was no time to focus on the past. The country was being run by what both men perceived to be a dangerous demagogue who was willing to say anything — no matter how vile — to win an election.
At the time, rumors of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s retirement were growing, and, of course, someone needed to run on the Democratic presidential ticket in 2020. On this night, however, neither man had announced their intention to run for political office. They were exiles in Trump’s America.
To begin the fireside, Romney asked Biden an innocuous, unmemorable question as a pleasant warmup to what was expected to be a deep conversation on the most important issues in the world. Biden then spent the next hour-and-a-half rambling incoherently as Romney sat silently beside him.
The audience kept looking around and smirking at each other to validate what we were all experiencing. I’ve never seen anything like it. It got to the point where I couldn’t remember life before the fireside chat, and sitting there dumbfounded, I couldn’t comprehend life after it.
A chunk of the audience got up and left at around the 45-minute mark. Unfortunately, I was stuck in the same row as then-Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Lindsey Graham. My fate was sealed.
Biden said words I recognized, but the order in which he delivered them made no sense. The only string of words I managed to comprehend concerned him encouraging Romney to run for Senate. “We need leaders like you back there,” he mumbled. No one seemed to care that Biden had the opposite view only a few years back.
I left the event confused. On the ride home, two questions popped into my head: Is there any difference between the Democratic and Republican parties? Does Joe Biden have dementia?
We haven’t sufficiently explored or come to terms with what motivates a person to seek political office. On the surface, we know they want power, notoriety, legacy, and fortune.
What can’t be found on the surface is an answer to the question: Why, though? Why do you want those things? Why are you spending your life in their pursuit? And, perhaps more pressing to society, why should these things be awarded to you?
A few years back, I was asked to contemplate a run for state senate in Utah. The seat in my hometown district had suddenly opened up due to the woman who previously held it being elected Lt. Governor. No one asked me what I’d do with the office, my vision for the state’s future, or even if it was something I’d be particularly good at. I was being encouraged to run simply because the position was available.
It wasn’t long until I called the politician who’d already declared his candidacy to tell him I wasn’t running because I had no reason to, and it sounded like he did. “I don’t know what I’d do if I won,” I said. That felt like justification enough not to do it.
It turns out you don’t need a reason. In his recent biography of Mitt Romney, McKay Coppins writes:
Romney sent his team back to the drawing board. In his journal, he fumed, “Obama theme: Forward. Not bad. Good, actually. Opposite of backward. Nice way to box me in. Dang. Why do I have no message yet?!”
It was the same problem that had dogged him since his very first bid for office — the struggle to articulate a big, inspiring reason for his campaign, a grand vision he planned to enact, a future he wanted to create. He seemed to think this was something that could be outsourced to pollsters and ad makers, the type of people who draw up marketing plans for any other product. His mind simply didn’t move in sweeping ideological motions. His heart wasn’t invested in a distant American utopia. The deepest belief motivating his pursuit of the presidency was in his own power to solve problems, to fix things.
We’re searching for answers in the wrong direction. Rather than looking at the politicians, we should be looking at ourselves. After all, the power and notoriety they attain comes from us. We choose these people. The narcissism they exude stares back at us through the mirror.
The truth is we don’t care that politicians can’t tell us why they deserve the power to govern us. We don’t care what their motivations are; we just know they don’t align with ours. If we were aligned, they wouldn’t enter office in debt and leave with millions in their bank accounts. They wouldn’t be able to trade stocks while they’re gathering inside information and implementing financial regulations. They wouldn’t talk about foreign countries more than the 100,000 fentanyl deaths in the United States in just the past year alone.
We know politicians are self-interested. Why aren’t we? We help the politician who wears our team’s jersey settle petty grievances instead of stopping to ask ourselves why they deserve our power in the first place and what they might do with it. It’s like rooting for your favorite football team without looking at the score.
We do this because it’s easier than the alternative. It makes us feel safe. We deceive ourselves into thinking we support the good team over the bad one. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “What do you know, what could you know as to how much artifice of self-preservation, how much rationality and higher protection there is in such self-deception — and how much falseness I still require in order to allow myself again and again the luxury of my sincerity.”
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