The Capitol Riot Showed Us the Danger in Idolizing Politicians


Source: Alex Grichenko

Elisha V

The insurrection at the Capitol revealed a lot of ugly truths about the current state of America – and its democracy. The rioters’ tearing down of an American flag and replacing it with a Trump flag is among the long list of appalling things that they did on January 6, an action which speaks loud and clear about where their priorities and loyalties lie. The storming of the Capitol was driven by almost five years of unconditionally idolizing Trump  to the point where his supporters solely have faith in one man that they’re willing to disregard Congress, reputable news media, and the democratic voting process itself.  


Idolizing politicians is a tale as old as time. 11th Grade AP US Government and History teacher Michele Balsam notes that classrooms often glorify historical figures without acknowledging their flaws. A chief example is the contradictory founding fathers who, while fighting for the ideals of democracy and equality, owned slaves and upheld the systems of white supremacy. 


“I tend to stray away from ‘Great Man History’, which is the celebration of any political or historical figures as being the reason that something happened, or the sole representative of that time period,” Michele said. “There are a lot of small and large atrocities [committed] by people who we venerate in history.”


Studying history is about examining the mistakes of the past and, hopefully, learning from them and preventing atrocities from repeating themselves. Glamourising historical figures as “Great Men” does the exact opposite, and makes us assume that it’s okay to glorify present day political figures, too. We need to be constantly viewing elected officials through a critical eye to determine whether they’re fulfilling their obligations to their constituents – us – and are fit for reelection. Idolizing leads to ignoring, forgiving, and disbelieving any wrong-doings or mistakes. It prevents us from holding our politicians accountable and immunizes them against criticism and questioning. 


This phenomenon doesn’t blossom out of nowhere. Michele pointed to online echo chambers as a reason for the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories. If you stumble upon one far-right (or far-left) post, social media algorithms will assume you enjoy that content, and push you to more content similar to what you’ve just consumed. We also intentionally and unintentionally curate our feeds and our social network to include mostly people who share the same beliefs as we do. This is known as confirmation bias, and if we consume news and social media posts which raise up a politician, we are more likely to start idolizing them too. 


Politicians like Trump exploit the idea of confirmation bias by repeating false claims over and over again so that eventually, his supporters take them as indisputable facts. Michele explains one method of how Trump rallied a loyal following: 


“I think one of the reasons why Trump did so much of his presidency through Twitter is because no one could fight him … he chooses spaces where he can [spread his lies] and be celebrated for it and can’t face opposition.” 


The issue with idolizing is that people refuse to believe proven facts when the truth taints the image of their political idol – even when their news outlet of choice repeats said facts. After Fox News confirmed Joe Biden’s election, loyal Trump supporters abandoned Fox and moved to even more far-right media like One America News Network, who were continuing to bolster their beliefs in the “stolen” election. This is the problem – even if Fox News distances themselves from Trump and election conspiracy theories, Trump loyalists will just seek out other sources and stand by their beliefs. On a larger scale, anyone can choose to ignore any media which disagrees with any beliefs they have. 


The capitol riot is an extreme example of the detrimental effects of idolizing politicians, but we see it on the left, too. Take Bernie Sanders, a remarkable figure for progressive politics. Although she values and supports him, Michele cautions against the belief that electing Bernie – or other heroized politicians – will “save us” and instantly fix America’s issues. Idolizing politicians and historical figures ignores the fact that political and social change is a complex process involving droves of people. It wasn’t solely Washington, Jefferson, or the other founding fathers who fought for independence and constructed this democracy – these are the men who history and schools have chosen to amplify because we have the most information about them. Biden and Harris aren’t going to single handedly fix the deep-rooted issues facing America today. This is why the 2020 election does not signify the end of Trumpism, much like how electing a Black president did not signify a post-racist America. A lot of the time, change happens from the ground up, which is why engaging in local politics can be just as important as voting for presidents.


The issue of idolizing politicians and historical figures – or anyone for that matter – raises the question of whether or not someone’s achievements offset or excuse their mistakes and failures.  We need to look at politicians holistically, but our social media echo chambers and the polarized news media often prevent us from doing so. Admiring and appreciating is one thing. Politicians have incredibly difficult jobs, and voters should celebrate their successes. But the Capitol attack illustrated the dangerous places where blind idolization can reach: flouting the truth and threatening democracy.