If I remember correctly, one of the major points Leo Tolstoy makes in War and Peace is that enormous changes that sweep a country or continent are rarely the doings of one individual, even if it is tempting to believe it. Obviously Tolstoy was talking about Napolean, and although things may have gone differently in France and Russia had the little Corsican not been heading the Grande Armée, he was simply the person pushed to the front by a combination of powerful forces in play at the time. Were it not him, it would have been someone else. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as
Julius Caesar Shakespeare Winston Churchill Mark Twain an obscure cricketer once said.
I found this argument persuasive, and I’ve often thought people put the cart before the horse when it comes to highly influential public figures. I’m not denying they are influential insomuch as saying the situation was ripe for someone influential to take charge, and it happened to be the one we now all know. I’ve been saying this for a while about Trump, particularly in response to those who think if they could just get rid of him, the political attitudes that surround him would disappear and everything would go back to normal. Anyone who thinks Trump has created and is now leading a political movement is either dim or hasn’t been paying attention; the political movement was there already, and merely chose him as its head when he wandered onto the stage at the first Republican primary.
But the idea of an all-powerful individual is persistent among a population, especially with those of a left-wing persuasion. Look at the blame heaped on Thatcher, as if her policies were not the result of millions of British people being utterly fed up with the behaviour of the unions over the previous two decades. And yesterday I came across this Tweet:
What about jo cox? He caused the atmosphere which resulted in her death.
— Edward Thompson (@Edward_Duncan) September 20, 2017
Leaving aside the actual circumstances of Jo Cox’s murder, the idea that Nigel Farage single-handedly “created an atmosphere” across a country the size of the UK is preposterous. What Farage did was tap into mass popular discontent with the EU which already existed, he didn’t whip it up on his own out of nothing. If this were possible, I’d be in charge and there would be an awful lot more bluegrass on the TV and radio. And supermarkets would still be giving away carrier bags for free. Blaming Farage for Brexit is like blaming traffic jams on Henry Ford.
Of course, this effect runs in the other direction too, with individuals being deified: Obama was portrayed as some sort of Messiah put on Earth to lead the rabble into a new, progressive era. In reality, his election was mostly down to people being fed up with neo-cons, wars, Republicans, and dynastic presidents. They wanted a fresh face and a new direction, and Obama offered that. Regardless of what happened afterwards, he was seen as the right man for the time. This penchant to view leaders as all-powerful individuals shaping events which are taking place anyway leads to personality cults and hubris in the leaders themselves who start to believe their own bullshit. I suspect this phenomenon arises because it is firmly embedded in human nature. It is remarkably persistent, at any rate.