There can be no affair sexier, surely, than the one that begins with a good-looking stranger catching your eye across a crowded room, striding toward you as time slows and the world dissolves, leaning in so close you feel the breath on your ear until, at last, the person whispers the 32 little words you’ve always longed to hear: “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice your support for more public infrastructure investment, and just had to tell you that deficit spending is unsustainable and may very well jeopardize the economy.”
… Er, what’s that you say? Almost anything else whatsoever would be sexier, you say? That’s a bizarre, slightly creepy scenario, you say?
Fair enough. You’re in the company of most people – most politicians, too. The matching tracksuit relationship is in vogue; also, in Vogue. But before Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau ever fell in love, political leaders long validated themselves by falling in very passionate, very public love with their mirror images. Increasingly, researchers believe, others do the same.
Politicians do it to show off something they share. Sometimes the sparks fly over shared ideological values. “Dear Ronny” Reagan and his “Dear Margaret” Thatcher danced together to the tune of small government, tight money supply, and a couple of songs played at White House balls.
Things really seem to heat up when two people discover they share a certain disposition toward power, though. It was inevitable that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump would declare their love for each other’s bombast with what else but bombast. Maybe, over candlelit dinners in the Kremlin, they’ll bond over their love of themselves and hatred of women, journalists and other stupid weaklings.
Occasionally, the enemy of a politician’s enemy becomes his special friend. No one thought Tony Blair would find a better match than Bill Clinton. Then George W. Bush came along, then 9/11 terrorists, and after a couple of years it was all let’s-invade-another-country-together this, and let’s-have-sleepovers-and-long-drives-in-the-pickup-truck-at-Crawford-ranch-together that.
Poland and Hungary’s leaders barely said hello until they found common nemeses in Brussels, refugees and liberal democracy; now they bond over sour soup.
These are the couples who get together because they like the same band, the ones whose conversations are choruses of “Same!” and “Me too!” The partners affirms their own existence by doubling down on themselves; advertising their values, their characters, their hatreds, their memories, through the simple fact that someone similar wants to be with them.
They are perfect for each other, and they are meant to be, and they are unbearably, relentlessly dull.
Not that every political foe ought to be fallen into bed with. The stranger across the room wouldn’t be so appealing if he or she argued, say, that the rule of law undermines the Queen’s God-given right to govern absolutely. Any relationship requires some basic agreement: that decisions be made through non-violent discussion, that people be treated as equals, that KKK members be swiftly rejected should they make overtures. You need a common lexicon so that you might eventually say, “Darling, you couldn’t be more wrong about mass surveillance.”
But high-profile love-ins mirror a troubling private trend: love that brooks no political dissent. One 2011 study found that Americans care more that their spouse has similar political views than a similar personality or looks. This, when political divisions are dangerously sharp. If a political sex symbol is required, it isn’t the one that the equally glamorous, equally liberal, equally optimistic Obama and Trudeau could offer last week.
Maybe the love is gone from the love-hate relationship. Too bad, really. At home, self-referential romance makes for boring conversation, at the very least. Elsewhere, it makes for a society with a chip on its shoulder, a society in which people are so insecure and unimaginative in their beliefs that they think those with whom they disagree are not only mistaken, not only unintelligent, immoral and incomprehensible, even – they’re unlovable.