I had fallen into an increasingly pervasive trap among Americans on both sides of the political divide: the glorification of political figures. Then and today, my social media feed and Google ads remain populated with Obama stickers or first lady Michelle Obama coloring books. While I admire both these individuals, I should be able to admire them without politics becoming meaningless social media posts. Being a politician is a job, and while I may respect the work these ‘government employees’ are doing, I shouldn’t grant them an untouchable status.
As a society, the political polarization we currently face has led us to foster parasocial relationships with politicians. We act as if we know them as casual friends instead of country leaders. By doing so, we undermine U.S. democracy and the respectability of the presidency while further perpetuating political polarization in the country.
Following Trump’s declaration of his intent to pursue the second term of his presidency, this concept of unhealthy obsessions and commercialization strengthened into a parasocial relationship. Parasocial relationships, initially coined by Horton and Wohl in 1956, reference one-sided psychological relationships in mass media where the audience feels they know television personalities as friends, applying to politicians in this case. Supporters of a specific nominee invest considerable time, energy and interest in their candidate. However, according to an article by Howard University Doctoral Students, candidates generally remain unaware of the supporter’s existence.
These relationships have increasingly applied to politics since Trump’s 2020 campaign. While there remains a consistent market for political merchandise, during Trump’s campaign, the use of a flag to show support for him became prevalent. In the past, flags have typically represented pride, territory and identity, with yard signs typically reserved for spreading awareness about candidates. By using the same colors as the U.S. flag — which promotes freedom and justice — Trump assigned his campaign flag an alternate meaning consistent with his warped view of an ideal America. Flags denote territory, and with the introduction of one into his merchandise, Trump claimed America as his own. He situated himself to be equal with a country, thus forcing his supporters to idolize him as they would their nation, completely disregarding his role as a man of the people.
Prior to Trump’s campaign, flags were not vessels of political support. Now, you can’t drive down Rt. 9 without seeing flags whipping on trucks and plastered onto front porches, symbolizing Trump supporters’ unhealthy assumption that he can do no wrong. As president, Trump has failed to condemn white supremacy, raised U.S. debt to the highest levels since WWII, labeled the U.S. irresponsible through his handling of COVID-19 and even faced impeachment.
In addition to the flags, Trump has sustained a parasocial relationship with his admirers through his rhetoric since his first presidential campaign in 2016. When he accepted the G.O.P. nomination, he promised Americans he would act as their voice and single-handedly “restore law and order in our country.” Trump also told supporters, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
By emphasizing the phrase “I alone,” Trump aims to convince his supporters they should place their faith solely in him to enact their legislative goals. Terminology is once again crucial, as Trump establishes himself as a figure worthy of his supporters’ faith, which of course causes them to idolize him. With his unrealistic rhetoric, he fosters a view from his supporters that liken him to a religious figure. This completely undermines the political and judicial system of the U.S. because it takes the choice away from the people and places it only in Trump’s hands — more consistent with a dictatorship than a democracy.
While this parasocial relationship is evident in Trump’s cult-like following, this is not just an issue among Republicans. Following the re-election of “the squad” this past Election Day, Democrats have idolized these women as well. “The squad,” composed of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “AOC” (D-NY), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), are progressive congresswomen of color who began their terms in 2018. While Ocasio-Cortez coined this term after the 2018 election, it still remains problematic.
Ocasio-Cortez’s term “the squad” portrays her and her colleagues as a clique the average girl yearns to be included in. They’re actually a group of women inspiring the next generation of girls, specifically those of color, to pursue political careers and advocate for social justice. Although “the squad” highlights the dire need for greater racial and gender representation in Congress, while also promoting a sisterhood of underrepresented women, it has an unintended consequence. The term’s reference to the pop-culture phrase “my squad” undermines the important work these women do with the use of a casual slang term and contributes to the parasocial relationship “the squad” maintains with its supporters.
When the politicians we elect achieve significant goals like co-sponsoring the Green New Deal, spurring the House’s 181-year ban on headwear (including hijabs), advocating for sexual assault and abortion rights as AOC, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib, respectively, have accomplished, it is difficult not to idolize them. However, we should be able to respect the work of “the squad” without labeling them that. Instead, we should value them as members of Congress who act on behalf of the people. These women aren’t celebrities or religious figures: they’re employees doing a job, a job that involves protecting and gaining human rights. This poses the challenge of balancing admiration with obsession — terms like “the squad” making the distinction much harder.
As mentioned, myself and so many others idolized Obama during his presidency. I thought that because he legalized gay marriage, advanced climate-change legislation and bring progress towards widespread affordable healthcare, that he was “the perfect president” and an individual I desired to be friends with. I knew nothing about Obama besides his political stances and actions — certainly not the foundation for a strong friendship. However, in overly praising him for his successes, I was complicit in ignoring actions I disagree with, like allowing the overuse of the U.S. drone programme in his strategy on fighting the War Against Terror.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “[Obama oversaw] more strikes in his first year than Bush carried out during his entire presidency. A total of 563 strikes, largely by drones, targeted Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during Obama’s two terms, compared to 57 strikes under Bush. Between 384 and 807 civilians were killed in those countries.”
Because I placed Obama on a pedestal for what he achieved, I ignored ‘this one small thing’ as if it weren’t the lives of innocent people. Obama accomplished great feats as president, but also did some terrible things. Idolizing him prevents me from questioning his decisions and ensuring he acts based on the country’s opinions. It prevented me from realizing that he wasn’t a perfect president — as no one is. Politicians are people first; they make mistakes and have their own feelings and motivations. He made strides for human rights, but shouldn’t be glorified for it.
Since both parties participate in this idealization through merchandise, language and social media, I think it speaks to the political divide of our country. How deplorable is it that we have to idolize those who succeed in gaining basic human rights for yet another oppressed group because our country has previously denied them for so long? Trump supporters and democrats idolize different figures for different reasons. Regardless of their motives, in order to begin bridging the political polarization in the U.S., we must refrain from idolizing politicians through parasocial relationships and treat them as they truly are: people we can admire simply performing a high-stakes job.
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