What Visionary Leaders and Rabble-Rousers Have In Common

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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We’ve had enough over-the-top rhetoric to last a lifetime, but the opposite is hardly to be preferred. Jargon and “diplomatic” euphemisms are a form of political correctness that can erode moral clarity.

Both extremes are to be avoided. But I do wonder if the proliferation of snake oil salesmen and bomb throwers hasn’t caused sophisticated “opinion leaders” to err toward the milquetoast, as if there were an inverse relationship between serious governance and straight talk.

Two things I’ve read recently have me thinking about this.

First, there was Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s line about ISIS. In case you missed it, he said we should “either convert them or kill them.” (Aside from Robertson and Ann Coulter, I’m not sure anyone wants to convert them to anything. More realistic would be to convert them away from radical Islam — if one believes that is even feasible.)

Now, you might be wondering why Phil Robertson is talking abour the rise of radical Islam. This is a fair question. But let’s just examine his comment on its merits. Robertson’s line was splashed across websites and Twitter, presumably because it was controversial. It would be easy to dismiss Robertson as a crank, but if his line sounded incendiary to modern ears, consider Winston Churchill’s line about the “malignant Huns”:

“Some of whom are curable and others killable…” Churchill declared.

This is not to compare Robertson to Churchill (God forbid), but it is to say that some of what passed for great leadership and moral clarity in the past might be viewed in some quarters today as unsophisticated rhetoric.

This brings me to the second thing that made me think of this tension, which regards Christopher Caldwell’s book review of American Bridge. As Caldwell notes, Reagan’s “greatest triumphs came on issues that he advanced in the face of unanimous advice to the contrary.”

For his stubborn refusal to bow to the conventional wisdom of the day, Reagan was famously derided as a rube and dismissed as an “amiable dunce.” He didn’t care. He called out an “evil Empire” and declared: “Tear down this wall!” These were things that the so-called experts not only believed were undiplomatic, but also potentially dangerous saber rattling.

In any event, the line about Reagan’s triumphs coming in the face of unanimous adversity reminded Matthew Continetti of someone:

This is true. Then again, one could have said the same thing about Sarah Palin.

It is, perhaps, dangerous to compare the declarations of a senator or a governor to the pronouncements of a former President of the United States who had also been a two-term governor of California.

Still, the comparison is not absurd. And, in every case, it is  understandably frustrating for wizened political operatives and seasoned political commentators to deal with brazen or rogue politicians who succeed in spite of ignoring all the rules of the game.

In this regard, I’m reminded of what John Updike wrote of Ted Williams: “The dowagers of local journalism attempted to give elementary deportment lessons to this child who spake as a god, and to their horror were themselves rebuked.”

The truly brilliant trailblazers and transformational leaders often eschew the advice of mortals. They have a vision, and they follow it. In this regard, they ironically have much in common with the losers and the fools of the world, who also eschew conventional wisdom.  

It’s hard to tell who’s really crazy and who’s crazy like a fox. To paraphrase President Obama, this is messy.

Matt K. Lewis