The Bobblehead Dilemma

Posted by on September 30, 2021 6:00 am
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Over the course of the pandemic, Anthony Fauci has become a cultural obsession. You can, if you so desire, purchase Fauci-themed chocolates, T-shirts, luxury sweaters, yard signs, bobblehead dolls, and votive candles. Fauci, for his part, seems baffled by the attention: “Our society is really totally nuts,” he wrote in an April 2020 email, responding to an online article about “Fauci Fever.”

But he is far from the first government official in recent years to receive this onslaught of adoration. Before Fauci, Special Counsel Robert Mueller was left-of-center America’s unlikely crush and magnet for T-shirt sales; before Mueller, it was fired FBI Director James Comey, whom liberals had reviled just months prior for his handling of the Clinton email investigation. The public servants describing President Donald Trump’s misconduct during his first impeachment had their moment too: Inspired viewers of those 2019 hearings formed a “Fiona Hill Fan Club” for the former National Security Council official.

Politicians have always worked to cultivate devoted followings. Yet as these unexpected subjects of public obsession would be the first to tell you, they are not politicians. They are bureaucrats and functionaries—people who pride themselves on being apolitical, putting their head down, and getting the job done. Most of them were not looking for the limelight, nor are they particularly comfortable in it. But they were transformed into the nerdy heroes of the Trump era, cast as foils to the 45th president and his boorish disinterest in the workings of the government he ran.

Now, under the Biden administration, the culture of idolizing public servants does not seem to be going away. The trouble is that this newfound fandom for the federal government among anti-Trump Americans sits awkwardly with the reforms that, as Trump’s presidency showed, America’s governing institutions so desperately need.

The trend toward obsessive appreciation of political figures who are not actually politicians, especially on the left and the center-left, traces back to 2013, when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was transformed into the internet superstar “Notorious RBG” for her dissent in the voting-rights case Shelby County v. Holder. Since then, plenty of politicians, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Vice President Kamala Harris, have become memes to one degree or another. Writing in The New York Times, the culture critic Amanda Hess describes this as “democracy reimagined as fandom”—people engaging with some of the most powerful figures in American politics as they would with a pop singer or movie star.

But if making a GIF out of a presidential candidate is one thing, buying a T-shirt with a former FBI director’s face on it is quite another. The chaos of the Trump administration—and the hopelessness felt by the many people who detested the president—expanded fan culture to focus on civil servants and bureaucrats as well. As Hess notes, Ginsburg became a liberal icon not for her victories but because of her dissents to rulings by a right-wing Supreme Court: “Cultural victories,” Hess argues in another Times essay, “act as Band-Aids for political wounds.”

[Read: The Ruth Bader Ginsburg fandom was never frivolous]

And in the early Trump years, there were a lot of wounds. The first public servant to find the klieg lights trained on him was Comey, who drew admiring attention after Trump fired him for his testimony on the president’s efforts to corrupt the FBI. The affection was immediate: “Comey should be the next Bachelor,” one Twitter user declared. A year later, the former FBI director’s memoir recounting his interactions with Trump turned into a best seller. By then, Robert Mueller had become an object of adoration too. The special counsel—a soft-spoken, brusque 72-year-old man with a habit of flicking the lights on and off to inform houseguests that it is time to leave his home—was now, as Vogue put it, “America’s New Crush.” One psychoanalyst, considering the sudden rise of New Yorkers pining for since-disgraced Governor Andrew Cuomo during his spring 2020 coronavirus briefings, described this phenomenon as “retrosexual.”

“We’re not trying to be melodramatic here,” wrote one novelty store in the description for its Mueller action figure, “but the Special Counsel sure seems to be the last thing standing between us and utter chaos.” Today, that same store is advertising its Fauci action figure, complete with detachable mask. When the pandemic began, Fauci slotted into the same cultural role that Comey and Mueller had filled for Trump’s opponents. He was professional, careful, detail-oriented—all the things Trump was not. He believed in public service, rather than Trumpian self-interest. Men like Fauci and Comey devoted their life to systems of order and knowledge—science, the rule of law—that Trump’s hostility to facts threatened to uproot.

And it hasn’t been just these men. The writer Michael Lewis captured the mood in his 2018 book The Fifth Risk—also a best seller—which the Washington Post called “a love letter to federal workers.” Studying some of the government’s least prominent agencies, Lewis wrote glowingly of the rigor and apolitical expertise of the civil servants whom the Trump administration had placed under attack, through both sheer sloppiness and a deliberate effort to bring about what the Trump adviser Steve Bannon called “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” In a 2020 interview, Lewis argued that the disastrous impact of Trump’s presidency had helped Americans “figure out just how critical government is.” A Fauci bobblehead or an It’s Mueller Time mug might seem like a strange way to express newfound appreciation for the importance of a government that runs on expertise rather than bullshit—but the Trump era made a lot of things strange. And in such dark days, a silly bobblehead can provide much-needed lightness.

The pro-Trump right has its own heroes—including, most obviously, the former president himself. But in a reflection of the American right’s long-standing distaste for government, those heroes are usually not public servants. The exceptions tend to be members of law enforcement, such as the former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom Trump pardoned in 2017 after a judge convicted Arpaio of ignoring a court order to cease racially profiling Latinos. Arpaio was a government official, but his appeal as “America’s toughest sheriff” came from his willingness to go outside the rules, not abide by them. And Arpaio’s supporters often framed their enthusiasm less as something heartfelt and more as trolling. “Arpaio’s defiance of all the right people (leftists, Democrats, the media) made him a heroic figure,” argued a columnist on the pro-Trump site Breitbart News shortly after the pardon. This kind of fandom has a winking evasiveness, just like Trump himself: It’s impossible to know whether the fan really believes in Arpaio’s mission, or whether the goal is just to piss people off.

It may be tempting to write off left-of-center fandom toward civil servants as equally shallow. Hess, of the Times, argues that “civic participation has been converted seamlessly into consumer practice.” But if you can get past the corny T-shirts, there is a sincerity and even innocence to it. Mueller, Fauci, the bureaucratic heroes of The Fifth Risk: They all believe in things, such as the value of civil service and the importance of upholding the rule of law. The 2019 impeachment hearings over Trump’s extortion of Ukraine doubled as a catalog of the witnesses’ idealism, as civil servant after civil servant testified about what drew them to government work and how their family stories of hardship and service instilled in them a love for America. This attitude is, amid doubts on both the right and the left about what American values are and whether they’re worth anything, deeply old-school. As a response to Trump’s attack on all principles outside self-interest, it’s an appealing alternative system for thinking about civic life.

Lewis describes in The Fifth Risk how the Trump administration’s efforts to gut crucial federal programs—such as free access to weather forecasting—were aided by the fact that Americans generally don’t understand much about what services the government provides in the first place. Perhaps greater public appreciation of civil servants might help push back against future such efforts—an especially important consideration in an era when the American right has largely abandoned the idea of governance in favor of privatization and grievance politics. Fauci fans might express their appreciation through purchases, but they are also cheering for the effectiveness of big government.

Likewise, a new cadre of civil servants inspired to join government by the idealism of figures like Fauci could help rebuild departments hollowed out by the exodus of experts driven away by the Trump administration. Several years ago, I watched a former official, who had left government after Trump upended his work, exhorting a group of young people to consider public service: It was still worth it, he argued, despite everything.

And yet there is also a distinct conservatism to this new excitement over the sincerity of bureaucrats. It’s not a coincidence that the people who transformed into rock stars are almost all older white men, able to channel a certain vision of cultural authority. Both Fauci and William Taylor, a State Department official who became a runaway star of the Ukraine impeachment hearings, have drawn comparisons to Walter Cronkite—evoking a nostalgia for an imagined past when everyone could trust what the men in power were saying.

[From the April 2020 issue: The president is winning his war on American institutions]

This nostalgia ran aground again and again during the Trump administration, when Americans were frustrated to find that the authority figures in whom they had put their trust were unable to bring Trump’s presidency crashing down. Now, with a president in power who himself fits that model of plainspoken decency, the risk is that this new fan culture deflects the criticism that authority deserves in a democratic society. The current White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki is not an apolitical civil servant like Fauci or Taylor, but she has developed a similar fandom and has even been given her own hashtag for when she shuts down questions from reporters: #PsakiBomb. But as Jessica M. Goldstein points out in Washingtonian, “it isn’t in the public’s best interest for the White House’s most prominent spokesperson to be good at deflecting queries.” The left-of-center adoration of Psaki, Goldstein argues, is “like a hangover from the Trump era we’re struggling to shake.”

This “hangover” surfaces intellectual tensions that the Trump presidency helped, for a time, to submerge. Consider the sudden public adoration of the FBI and federal prosecutors, which was always at odds with increasing recognition of the brutality and unfairness of America’s criminal-justice system. In the past few years, Comey, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, and the former federal prosecutor Elie Honig all published books framing the values of the Justice Department and the rule of law as sources of civic virtue for all people to abide by. Yet none of those memoirs spend adequate time engaging with the manifest flaws and racial inequities of law as it’s put into practice. At the same time as Trump’s presidency cast Justice Department officials resisting corruption as newly heroic, the administration’s cruelty—its refusal to counter racist municipal police departments; its rush to execute federal inmates on death row, many of them Black—also made clear how much of the justice system is built on ugliness. If the takeaway from America’s sudden love of public servants is that government, when run by the “right” people, is beyond criticism, the risk is that the system will continue to rot.

The challenge is to channel this new sincerity into a political project that looks forward, rather than backwards. Trump’s irony is politically deadening in its focus on “owning the libs”; if nothing matters, what’s the point of pushing for change? Sincerity, in contrast, insists that things do matter after all. The #Resistance movement, developed in opposition to Trump, appeals to the same white suburban women who might be moved to purchase a Mueller bobblehead or a Fauci candle. It is also, as the sociologist Theda Skocpol has shown in research with Lara Putnam, Leah Gose, and Caroline Tervo, a powerful force that is remaking American politics at the local level, pushing women who had previously been politically disengaged to express their frustration through grassroots organizing for Democratic and left-wing causes. These activists are extremely sincere and uncool. But if they can continue to harness their rage for making things better, they might be able to do exactly that.


* Photo-illustration images courtesy of Ting Shen / Bloomberg / Getty; Win McNamee / Getty; Alex Kraus / Bloomberg / Getty; Alex Wong / Getty; Santiago Felipe / Getty; The Atlantic

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