by Christopher C. Thompson | 22 December 2023 |
“It’s a populist irony—the strongman comes to power by making impossible and destructive promises to the disenfranchised. Do they actually have any intention of helping these people? Of course not. In fact, they´ll actively stymie any reforms that will actually make the system more fair. All that matters is their iron grip on their ignorant base and the power that comes from it.”
― Ryan Holiday, Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius
I have recently become increasingly annoyed by strongmen. I am not talking about bodybuilders. I am a fan of bodybuilders: the discipline it takes to chisel one’s own physical body into an object of marvel and majesty is admirable.
The strongman I’m referring to doesn’t master his own flesh, but rather, manipulates the masses for his own benefit.
Today I am angry that the masses get drunk with the wine of promises made on stump speeches. They are swooning from the crooning of the strongman’s gilded notes. The strongman leverages his pedigree, wealth, political power, or some other perceived badge that entitles him to the best of the land.
What is consistent is that strongmen seem to consolidate power around themselves, and people who look and think as they do. They want cronies, compliant yes-men, rather than critics and critical thinkers.
The proliferation of strongmen
While I am mindful that there have always been strongmen, the world seems suddenly overrun by them. It seems en vogue to be a strongman. They have cried loudly to their little, shrinking, struggling, scared groups that their strategies will cause them to triumph once more. That the glory days of dominance can be restored and re-lived.
They are lying, or delusional, or both. There is no fundamentalist or nationalist tactic that will stop the wave of diversity, tolerance, innovation, and revolution that is coming–and is already here for that matter.
Yet the strongman will not relent. He will–with violent, brute force–beat the subservient group into submission and compliance if it’s the last thing he’ll do. He will demonstrate his power and thus “their” dominance, though the heavens fall. He will through legislation, executive order, enabling action, or by some other nefarious manipulation of the political process, ensure that power is further consolidated in and around him.
No power to the people
Power to the people? Oh no! Never for the strongman. The people could never be trusted with the growth, management, and maintenance of their own communities. That work is exclusively designated for strongmen. Yet, this is the very core of what is so problematic about them. They are greedy. They have been deluded and deceived–bewitched by power. They believe the purpose of power is for the sake of control and bolstering and sustaining their own selves. Yet, this is not what power is for. The best and most blessed use of power is for lifting people up. Either strongmen don’t know this, or they reject it.
That’s the universal litmus test for power. If you ever want to know how toxic the power structure is, ask yourself (and those around them) how much lifting do they do? Are they lifting as they climb? As they are elevated, are they elevating others with them? Do the weak and vulnerable have a voice? Are the needy set aside and left behind?
It was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who said,
The ultimate moral test of any government is the way it treats three groups of its citizens. First, those in the dawn of life—our children. Second, those in the shadows of life—our needy, our sick, our handicapped. Third, those in the twilight of life—our elderly.
The strongman is not interested in the well-being of any of these three groups.
The strongman for the vulnerable
It is here that I am reminded of one of the reasons why I love Christmas so much. Christmas is the essence of hope and inspiration for vulnerable people. Here’s why. The King of all Kings has come; but not as a fearless champion or a fearsome marauder. He is lying in a feeding trough, swaddled in rags (which were possibly torn from his father’s tunic). Yet, in his weakness, this baby boy defied the power of strongmen throughout his entire life; even from the moment he was born. Then in a final act of defiance he relinquished himself into the hands of the strongman in an ignominious and humiliating demise and death.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
But here’s a disclaimer, even in the midst of this great acquiescence, he did make a clear distinction– several of them actually. He said to Pilate, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” Previously, he had told a different group of strongmen,
The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.
But why would he, having all power, willingly relinquish it in the face of villainous and barbarous fiends and placeholders in the annals of power? Why would he—the Creator—relent to the disorderly, rebellious creation? It’s a perplexing and profound answer. It is because by this courageous act of bravery and vulnerability in facing an unjust punishment at the hand of power-hungry mongrels, he was actually empowering the masses.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
It was a sudden, subversive shift of the power dynamic. John said that there was more that happened as a result of this great sacrifice.
He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.
Now here is a nuance that is very important. This word power does not refer to force or physical strength. Rather, it is more. This is jurisdiction and legal rights. This is legal authority to live above the dehumanization, subjugation, and oppression. This is freedom.
The ultimate end of the strongman
This is the demise of the strongman. For some reason, he can never seem to see the weak ones as they rise. Nevertheless, the wave is coming. Freedom rises like a flood. For some reason, the strongman can never understand that God is our strength.
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Christopher C. Thompson writes about culture and communication at thinkinwrite.com. He’s the author of Choose to Dream. When not writing, he’s jogging or binge-watching Designated Survivor. He’s married to Tracy, who teaches at Oakwood University.