I know someone who wanted Arsène Wenger to remain Arsenal manager because — don’t judge a man by his friends — of the “semiotics of him”. This sage understood well enough that a coach then nearing 70 was hopelessly spent at football’s elite level. What justified his retention was that he was an omnilingual graduate, a political liberal, an aesthete among barbarians. That is, he annoyed all the right people. He was on our cultural team, even as he led our footballing one to three consecutive 5-1 losses to Bayern Munich.
The picture of Wenger as a suave modern — he lives between London, Paris and Zurich — is as inexact as all cartoons. In their one insight, his formidably bland new memoirs reveal a man still influenced, even haunted, by the Catholic Alsace of his youth. But then the point of semiotics is outward appearance. To this day, Wenger commands a strident following on the basis of what he represents in the abstract, not just his doings. To side with him against his critics is to imply something flattering about one’s own education, taste and even morality.
For an old-ish man, he embodies a very current trend. It was on show last week, as American and European liberals cheered the re-election of a leader in another hemisphere whose domestic record is mostly unknown to them. I was going to say that I have never encountered anything quite like the worldwide cult of Jacinda Ardern. But then of course I have. Justin Trudeau once inspired a similar reverence: intense, global, vague. Those who saluted him from other continents might have been apprised of his administrative performance, but you will excuse me if I suspect not. It was enough that he was a telegenic francophone with progressive instincts and vulgar enemies. It was enough that he was who he was.
If this phenomenon seems unique to the leaders of unthreatening social democracies, then remember Barack Obama, who was gifted the Nobel Peace Prize inside his first year as president. (Jimmy Carter, who merely brokered Israeli-Egyptian peace, had to wait until his eighth decade.) Readers of a certain age will have lived through the near-canonisation of John F Kennedy, owner of the highest hype-to-achievement ratio of any public figure, at least until historians started to bring his standing down to earth.
I could go on. And that is the point. The idea has taken hold in recent
years that only conservatives fall for thoughtless personality cults. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson appeal to the tribal id of their fans, it is said, while liberals reason their way into their politics. The rightwing leader can call on absolute fealty. The liberal one is there on provisional sufferance, subject to ongoing review by the Humean empiricists of their flock.
What gives the lie to this conceit is Ardern and other case studies. And personal experience. Fifteen years in and around politics have persuaded me of one thing. With exceptions, people’s ideological commitments are laughably weak. They infer their beliefs from their tribe, not the other way around. A leader who clearly delineates one group from its rival — through rhetoric, through symbols — can count on credulous adoration. They are providing millions with a sense of belonging that might once have come from religion or ethnicity. Political affiliation becomes what the academic Lilliana Mason calls a “mega-identity”.
The mistake is to see it as a peculiarly rightwing tic. It was there
in the presidential hero-worship of The West Wing, a show so syrupy that even the screen — low-res, soft-lit — appeared to be smeared in the stuff.
In case they missed the point, liberal viewers found that “Jed”, the lead character, was short for a name no less righteous than Josiah.
“They”, I keep saying, as though I soar majestically above such shallowness. But then I think of Emmanuel Macron, a man who appears to have been bred in a laboratory to tickle my globo-centrist fancy. Yes, I could draw up a substantive case for him, citing his supply-side reforms and whatnot. On reflection, though, what matters is that he is so plainly of my team. And that he so incenses the other side. Something more primordial than analytic is at work. The trick is to admit it.
Email Janan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
Letter in response to this column:
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published