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Photo of Donald Trump

How do we get the leaders we don’t deserve?

How did you react to the news Donald Trump is President-elect of the most powerful nation on earth? Shock? A passing regret you didn’t put a wad down at Ladbrokes on Trump winning? (The odds the day before the election were 9-2, so it would have been a nice little earner). For me, the sense was of continuity. A sense that this was the latest instalment of a series that has been running for a while now in western politics – a continuation of a theme that has been at the heart of that series.

It was Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, who articulated this theme just after our own Brexit vote. She pointed out that one of the dimensions for some voters was their deep disillusion with the political classes. Among all the economic arguments pro and con and the discussions of democratic accountability, there was something else: a profound wish to punish a political elite that was perceived as self-serving, distant and smug.

And one could say that, amongst other things, the rise of UKIP fits that –a wish to punish the Brussels bureaucrats who feather their nests. The SNP looks credible not least as a way of punishing the complacent south of England cronyism at Westminster. Similarly with the rise of odd right-wing movements in France, northern Italy, Germany and elsewhere: an intriguing common factor (amongst others) is their anti-establishment stance.

Donald Trump caught the mood well with the ‘Drain the swamp’ slogan, getting at the idea that ‘we’ have had enough of a political class that has its collective snout in the trough. One senses a similar disdain as the UK public processes the extent of the parliamentary expenses scandals (note the plural) or Labour politicians who have the wealth to send their children to private schools and do not see this as perpetuating the social division they elsewhere oppose.

In that sense, Trump’s election is the latest in a line of dramatic events where the implausible happened in part because of deep disillusion and alienation not so much with the idea of democracy as with the leaders the democratic systems of the West have thrown up. Deep down, we seem not to like them because they seem (as a group, for there are honourable exceptions) to be in it for themselves.

How should a Christian reflect on that? I think the obvious question is to ask in what way these perceived shortcomings of the political classes make them different from the way the rest of the population behaves. We have a strongly self-centred culture, encouraging us to have a consumption, guzzling mind-set which sees ourselves as the entitled centres of our own little worlds. When someone is socialised in that kind of culture, it is not exactly surprising if they continue to behave like that when they are part of the political establishment, is it?

Our problem is that our politicians are all too representative of the rest of us: they are like us. And our need is precisely to have leaders who are public servants, not self-servants, in other words leaders who are NOT like us. Seriously, how does a culture like ours breed political leaders who genuinely serve others and will sacrifice themselves for others out of a sense of duty rather than sacrificing others for themselves in pursuit of their ‘right to succeed’? In Jesus we have just such a servant-leader. One aspect of the tragedy of western politics is how unlike Jesus our political classes are, and we do well to reflect that they are as they are not least because we are not like Jesus either.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Mike Ovey

Mike Ovey
09 November 2016

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