The following is adapted from my upcoming book Power and Presence: Reclaiming Your Authentic Self in a Weoponised World.
Don’t give your power away to politicians and other leaders.
For many, this is an attack of the bleeding obvious. Yet we may not be aware of just how often we do this. The problem is not as straightforward as we might think.
When I write about giving your power away to leaders, you might first think of extreme cases, such as those who sided with Hitler and Stalin last century; or perhaps those who supplicated before cult leaders like David Koresh and Jim Jones. These are clear examples of giving power away, and we can readily identify such cases. Firstly, the outcomes of these unequal relationships are both disastrous and well-known; and secondly the narrative we are given in our history books supports this idea of how foolish it was of supporters to submit to these sociopathic leaders.
Yet there are other ways that we commonly give our power away to leaders, at all levels. We tend not to notice when we are so deeply embedded within the dynamic that we cannot see what is happening; or wh don’t get it when the process is subtle.
We give our power away to our bosses when we project positively towards them without sufficient criticality. What is less appreciated is how we give our power away to leaders when we regularly project against them.
Information streams often feature an approved relationship with specific leaders. There are often pre-approved saints and sinners whom we can channel our emotional energy towards, or against.
The image of Hitler in World War Two was convenient, because he was such an obvious embodiment of evil that it permitted the Allied powers to establish a sense of moral superiority in respect to their opponents. Yet war is a very dirty business, and no side gets out with clean hands. The image of Hitler made the firebombing of Dresden a whole lot simpler. Likewise, dropping the bomb on Japan was largely accepted because of images of Japanese atrocities during the war. The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal entrenched that moral hierarchy, and since the Allies controlled the narrative, they wrote the history. Well, most of it.
Churchill was the good guy, Hitler the bad guy. Simple.
By the way, I’m not arguing for moral relativism. I’m sure glad the Allies won the war, and despite the many evils committed by both sides, I do believe that the lesser evil (by a long way) won. My point here is to suggest how image and narrative helps to motivate populations to project for and against leaders and their ideas.
Time has passed since Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, but human nature has changed little. We still reside in bodies consisting of about 30 000 genes, which produce on average of just three proteins. Our essential neurophysiology has not shifted in the 76 years since WW2 ended.
Something else that remains is that we are still being manipulated to generate positive and negative projections towards leaders, as a normal feature of public discourse. Who is the demon? Who is the saint? This is often decided by those in power: in government, politics, media – and increasingly it seems, by the algorithms.
In 2008 many were ecstatic when Obama was elected the president of the United States. I was one of them. A new dawn had begun, according to the popular sentiment. But of course, Obama as President was just as human as every other man who has ever been elected to that position, with all the limitations that the title entails. By the time he left office eight years later, the US was even more fractured than when he had arrived.
When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, the narrative was completely the reverse. A lot of people followed the script. They clicked. And clicked. And clicked.
You have probably seen the videos of people howling like dogs in the street, in disheveled despair at the coming of the Orange Demon. The end was nigh, or so they seemed to believe. They have been disappointed. Trump’s term has come to an end, and despite much chaos, the world is still here.
Part of the reason why leaders rarely live up (or down) to the expectations (positive and negative) of their followers, is that regardless of who holds office, the greater systemic structures generally remain. I know a lot of people like to run with the popular narrative that Donald Trump was a fascist, but I don’t think that is either a helpful or an accurate description. I see him as a rogue element who embodied the extreme levels of distrust in the system. Many of those who voted for him had simply lost faith in the system and its dominant narratives.
Many (but certainly not all) of those people gave their power away to Trump, and elevated him into a kind of cult-like status. It was as if Trump himself was going to save them.
Regardless of the huge differences in style and substance between Obama and Trump, what unites their stories as presidents is the way that so many gave their power away to them. When Trump’s limitations as leader became apparent, most notably toward the end of his term, many of his supporters were still unable to acknowledge those issues. They continued to give their power away. And to this day many supporters of Obama simply cannot bring themselves to see where he and his party have gone wrong.
Most everyone is doubling down. Now Biden-Harris are the new saviours, harbingers of a glorious dawn. How long with the illusion persist? I suspect not long.
Negative projection towards leaders is disempowering, but in a different way. When we spend large amounts of our mental energy rejecting leaders and systems, we surrender our potential to establish a more positive frame. Your life is effectively the relationship that you establish with the world around you, and with your experience. If that relationship is founded upon rejection and projected rage at what you perceive to be wrong with the world or any of its people, you have given your power away. You have failed to master your mind, and failed to master the system: two of the 12 pillars of self-mastery that I outlined in Champion of the Soul.
During the Obama presidency there was, over time, a rising antipathy towards him in some circles, perhaps most famously seen in the claim that Obama was born in Kenya (thus making him an illegitimate president). That level of negative projection was far exceeded during the Trump presidency, where most of the media and “educated” classes assumed a position of chronic projection and rage against the former businessman. Regardless of Trump’s failures, this represented a mass surrender of power on their behalf. They were effectively permanently camped in Trump’s frame, fixated by his every word and deed. Trump was a master manipulator, regularly making comments and blasting out provocative Tweets which were probable attempts to stir up that segment of the population, and to make them look foolish (to Trump’s support base). He succeeded a lot of the time.
Four years is far too long to spend in a state of chronic projection, staring over your cornflakes at the image of an elderly man in fake tan. Those one and a half thousand days are ones that such people will never get back, and they cannot blame Donald Trump for that denouement. The so called “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” whereby masses of people defined their daily existence by thumping on their keyboards and denouncing whatever was being written or spoken about Trump (and occasionally by what he actually said), is the most extreme case of mass negative projection in recent memory.
There are numerous negative effects and precious little good that have occurred because of this instance of mass insanity, but I am just going to skip all that and stick to my main point.
When we come to identify our own story with that of political tribes and their leaders, we have almost certainly surrendered our power to them. When we become emotionally entangled with political, ideological and philosophical narratives and images, it is very, very difficult to unweave those webs.
It is entirely possible to observe the limitations and merits of even the very best and very worst leaders, without giving your power away to them. Criticality and evaluation can be carried out in engaged presence, as can any words or actions which follow. The ideal relationship with leaders is to establish a frame for yourself which is aligned with your Authentic Self, with the highest expression of your values. And those will always embody psychological and spiritual maturity. The best way to establish that, to my knowledge, is to ground yourself in the body in the present moment. At the very least, we need to be able to know who we are beyond the world of mental machinations, and to be able to return to embodied presence at will, especially when we notice our minds getting caught up in politics and in the mental contestations which saturate so many virtual spaces.
Part of the issue here is that in the age of social media, we all have our own little soap box, and enormous numbers of people have effectively become social activists. Yet the e-tubule effect means that many of us (perhaps most) are ideologically possessed. We are typically exposed to opinion and editorials far more than to “news,” and so effectively become a channel for someone else’s agenda, or a particular tribe’s agenda.
Ideally, when we are witnessing media or social media commentary, we should be addressing each idea and each fact with detached criticality. At the very least, we need to assume cognitive responsibility for the thoughts and especially the emotions which arise within us as we surf the information universe.
Don’t give your power away to politicians.