In this new era of surrealism, it’s ironic that we can find prophetic wisdom in as unlikely a source as Hollywood scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin. In his 1995 masterpiece The American President, we find this exchange between President Andrew Shepherd and his domestic policy advisor, Lewis Rothschild:
Lewis Rothschild: People want leadership, Mr. President. And in the absence of genuine leadership they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership; they’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water they’ll drink the sand.
President Shepherd: Lewis, people don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty; they drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.
The truth is that both are right. Deprive people of authentic leadership for long enough and they will certainly lose the ability to tell the difference between reality and illusion.
When we reflect upon the contrast between the elegant ideals set forth by revolutionary leaders two and a half centuries ago and the cartoonish ranting of the avenger seeking coronation today, there is ample reason for anxiety that has nothing to do with Nazi genocide.