Elections and the Search for a Hero (Antihero)

black and white, sheep

The phenomenon of finding an antihero and making this person a hero is something we as humans are very inclined to do. We find examples of antiheroes in Scripture, in literature and in modern politics. Democrats are searching for a hero, or really an antihero, to lead them to victory in the next presidential election. I say antihero because I believe that it is often the antihero whom we end up electing. To many people this is exactly what the Republicans fell into when they elected Trump.

What is an Antihero?

The poet Byron may be truly the greatest antihero. By antihero, I mean someone who is lifted up as heroic but who in fact is quite imperfect. Even Byron knew he was corrupt. In his poem “The Vision of Judgment,” albeit in humorous terms, he admits his own guilt before God, assuming there is a God.

God help us all! God help me too! I am,
God knows, as helpless as the devil can wish, (Line 115)

Byron’s faults fit the bill for the definition of an antihero according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: “a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities.” Byron was famously wicked and famously self-indulgent but he was held up as a hero in part for these very traits. People were awed by his many contradictions.

Contradictions in the Heart

To understand the Byronic dilemma, I think we first have to understand that we are dealing with the human heart, which is naturally self-contradictory. The human heart is the battleground between good and evil, between the hero and the antihero. The Byronic contradictions are thus spoken of by Jeremiah (17:9):

More tortuous than anything is the human heart,
beyond remedy; who can understand it?

The biblical author was already aware of the Byronic contradictions. To illustrate these contradictions beyond what Jeremiah says, I will turn to Wikipedia’s description of Pechorin, the Byronic antihero of A Hero of Our Time, a 19th-century Russian novel written by Mikhail Lermontov.

According to the Byronic tradition, Pechorin is a character of contradiction. He is both sensitive and cynical. He is possessed of extreme arrogance, yet has a deep insight into his own character and epitomizes the melancholy of the romantic hero who broods on the futility of existence and the certainty of death.

Several key points emerge in this analysis that I will highlight. First, he is a “character of contradiction.” Pechorin is “sensitive and cynical.” While haughty, he is aware of his own shortcomings. He views existence as futile, but in the course of the novel, he acts with a passion that might suggest he is attached to life. These contradictions were writ large for Byronic heroes, but I would argue that many of today’s political heroes have them too and would qualify as antiheroes.

Politics: Hero and Antihero

Arguably, politics has become a field that welcomes contradictions. Candidates feign sensitivity and even change their views on topics to seem like they really care. Increasingly, politics is about saying the right thing to please the people. Many see Trump as a liar by pointing to his seeming exaggeration of the inauguration day crowd as well as more recent statements such as when he claimed that tariffs would be “paid for mostly by China, by the way, not by us.” Many people also see Joe Biden’s flipflop on abortion funding as a prime example of political maneuvering. Another contradiction that has become common in politics is the claim to believe in Americans while actually scorning the population of large swaths of the country. Again, I would claim that both parties are guilty of this. Trump’s disparaging remarks about the immigrants coming into this country seem to fall into this category, but as hurtful as his remarks were, Clinton’s put down of Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables” seems far more cynical.

While Trump is far from innocent, I would like to point out some contradictions I see as unique to Democrats. While much has been said about Trump’s undeniably large ego, Democratic candidates also believe they know best. In fact, many seem to claim to know better than the accumulated wisdom from centuries of the study of natural law. This hubris comes with the obvious contradictory acknowledgment that we can truly be sure of nothing but our doubt. This hubris connected with exaltation of self is key to the Byronic hero. Very much like the Byronic hero, the left tends to see existence as futile and self-expression as the only thing that ultimately matters. People in society that are clearly less self-expressive, the sick, unborn, and very old, seem to matter less.

The God Hole

Pechorin is certainly a bad man. His treatment of women is coldhearted and opportunistic, yet he views himself as a victim of an unloving world, in his own words, “I was ready to love the whole world, but no one understood me, and I learned to hate.” As romantic as this sounds, there is a sense that we are all a victim of a godless society. I am reminded of Psalm 14:1

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is none who does good.

Without God as guide, society becomes abominable and corrupting. Today’s hero like the Byronic hero is as much a victim as a villain of the God-shaped hole. It is this poignancy that Lermontov expressed when he wrote that his antihero, Pechorin, was the “aggregate vices of our whole generation in their fullest expression” (Epigraph to A Hero of Our Time). In other words, Lermontov wanted his readers to realize that they weren’t innocent. If they pointed the finger of blame at Pechorin, they would be pointing it at themselves.

Conclusion

I began by saying that our heroes are often representative of our vices, our herros are antiheroes. If this is true, it might not be surprising that we often come to hate our representatives. Of course, there are some problems with this idea. Trump seems to be hated in many ways simply for his policies. Obama was much less criticized in comparison. Still, there are ways that this is true. We criticize Trump for speaking his mind, but praise forms of self-expression we deem correct. We rail against the treatment of poor immigrants, but we devalue life in so many ways. Indeed, we complain about Joe Biden’s apparent weakness on racism, but forgive him for flip-flopping on abortion issues. These and other contradictions make me think that there is a level of hypocrisy in our own criticism of these figures and that we would do well to examine it.

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4 thoughts on “Elections and the Search for a Hero (Antihero)”

  1. In response to Captcrisis..I’m not 100% sure what you mean. I don’t think anyone would actually give a pass to the actions of Bill Clinton etc though they might choose to focus on some other part of his presidency as a way to avoid talking about them. Could you explain what you mean?

  2. I think one reason Tolkien was dispised by so many literary academics and beloved by so ordinary readers is that he creates real heroes: Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, Gandalf, Samwise Gamgee, and Aragorn.

    There are, in fact, many real heroes, who dispite whatever failings they possessed, have done great good for humanity. In one class are the saints. In another are people like Norman Borlaug, Michael Ellis DeBakey, and Jonas Salk.

    1. Glad to see a conservative like you finally give a pass to Bill Clinton for Paula Jones, Katherine Willey, Juanita Brodderick, and Gennifer Flowers.

    2. I think you’re right Kevin: for better or for worse we are really hooked on the anti-hero because for some reason we find this character more compelling. I think Frodo is actually made to seem a little anti-hero-ish in the films as is Aragorn so as to make them more appealing.

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