The Emperor’s New Clothes: 2020 Edition
How a classic folktale is being played out in the Oval Office
Somedays, I feel like we are living in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Between the pandemic, the racial unrest, and the 2020 election, it doesn’t seem possible that this is real life. And the social division around each issue falls firmly along political lines. How is it possible that masks are political?
As I’ve watched news stories and read news articles in the last few weeks, I had another thought. I think that we are living through the 2020 revival of A classic folktale. The Emperor’s New Clothes was always a fun story to read. How did the Emperor not realize he was being tricked? And why did it take a child to point out that he had no clothes?
The story, written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, has been analyzed by authors and philosophers and is subject to many different interpretations. For me, the moral of the story is that we shouldn’t let pride get in the way of the truth. If something seems unbelievable, it probably is. And, if you feel that a leader is manipulating followers, you should say something.
I have previously disclosed that I voted for Donald Trump in 2016. At the time, I thought I understood what this vote would mean. I had always believed in capitalism and admired the leaders who ran large companies.
Before my retirement in 2017, I worked for Aetna and saw a series of CEOs lead us, including Ron Williams and Mark Bertolini. I had seen them speak during employee meetings and occasionally in public. They were intelligent and articulate, and they inspired confidence.
They also surrounded themselves with other leaders, who helped them make critical decisions. I assumed all companies followed the same model, and I thought that a person in business might be able to shake things up in Washington. Be careful what you wish for.
In Donald Trump, I saw a man who everyone said was a successful businessman. He had hotels with his name on them, a popular reality TV show, and of course, he bragged about his success every time he had a chance.
I knew there was some talk of bankruptcies, but I guess I wanted to believe the image that was paraded before me. Surely Trump could translate his success to the presidency, right?
The reality of 2020 was the last thing I imagined. I know that Donald Trump is not personally responsible for the pandemic or the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks. He is responsible for much of the resulting chaos, and he has wholly failed Americans when it comes to leading the fight against COVID-19. How did we get here?
I feel that the story of the Emperor, who proudly marches through the streets with no clothes, provides one explanation. The Emperor is a vain leader who wants to demonstrate his superiority by having clothing designed that will enable him to determine who among his subjects are stupid or incompetent.
Donald Trump is well known for his vanity. Just in the last few weeks, he tweeted about his political endorsements and stated, “Has anyone ever done so well? I doubt it!”. He was recently interviewed by Mike Wallace on Fox News and reminded of prior statements related to COVID-19.
On January 22nd, he said, “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
On February 26th, he said, “When you have 15 people. And the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
On July 1st, he said, “I think we’re gonna be very good with the coronavirus. I think that at some point that’s going to sort of just disappear. I hope.”
During the Mike Wallace interview, he said, “I’ll be right eventually. I will be right eventually. You know I said, “It’s going to disappear.” I’ll say it again.” When asked if this discredited him, he said, “I don’t think so. I don’t think so. You know why? Because I’ve been right probably more than anybody else.”
How could anyone hear these statements and be filled with confidence in the President? I think that his followers have been conditioned to believe he is always right, and if they don’t believe him, they are just like the stupid & incompetent liberals that they have been conditioned to despise. Sound familiar? They know what it means to point out that he has no clothes on!
The President has doubled-down on his message that coronavirus is not serious. He begrudgingly wears a mask occasionally. Then he tweets about it to make it clear that he doesn’t support it:
Oh sure, he may have doubts, but he is committed, and he will be sticking to his story just like the Emperor who marched down the street with no clothes on.
And what about his followers, the conservative Republicans, including many Evangelical Christians? My theory is that they are committed to keeping their lives just like they are. They don’t want to be inconvenienced by shut-downs or wearing masks.
Not to minimize the economic impacts, they are undoubtedly severe, and our economy will take years to recover. But is money more important than human lives? Republicans want to believe that there is no reason to change their lives. I have a theory about this as well. They will do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo, even if it means accepting pseudo-science and conspiracy theories.
A few weeks ago, I heard another theory about the Republicans, who are also Evangelical Christians. I listened to a podcast by Paul Swearengin, a local Evangelical minister and founder of the Non-Partisan Evangelical. Paul believes that Evangelical churches have embraced Republican ideology to the point that Christians may be “more of a problem in our culture than the solution.”
So, it is possible that many Evangelical Christians feel that Donald Trump represents the ideals that their church embraces. And because this is tied into their religion, they are just like the Emperor’s followers. They may realize that the President has “no clothes,” but they would never be the first to admit it.
I recently downloaded Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump, the niece of the president. Mary Trump is a clinical psychologist who combines her training with her history in the Trump family. She uses this knowledge to reflect on and understand the family dynamics that helped make Donald Trump the person he is today.
The portrait she paints is not entirely negative. Her uncle is a product of his upbringing, and he did not have the best role models. He did have a father who created his initial success and then continued to bankroll his failures.
He also had a steady stream of people agreeing that he was great, even when his businesses were losing money. Now those followers represent a significant portion of our country, and they are cheering him on. I hope that many more people will speak up to represent the voice of the child who points out that the Emperor is wearing “nothing at all.”