Harry Potter is the ultimate martyr, to a quixotic and unattainable degree. His tale of sacrifice and rebirth is a paragon of the Christian tradition placed in a secular or even quasi-pagan context, giving the story a moral ubiquity while protecting its religious familiarity. Harry achieves this status by sacrificing his life to make an unassailably virtuous stand for not just his friends and family, but also a higher ideological mission. From a chronological sense, J.K. Rowling certainly did not initiate martyrdom’s transition from a theological ideal to a universal one, but her creation is impeccably emblematic of the new standard.
Popular culture is rife with similar examples, almost all of which are widely beloved. Characters like Pinocchio, Katniss Everdeen, and Obi-Wan Kenobi are extremely visible martyrs that have been propped up for children as virtuous and admirable. Regardless of their individual differences, this archetype of the morally unimpeachable martyr marks a paradigmatic shift away from the Byronic heroes of old. In “The Dark Knight,” Aaron Eckhart (as Harvey Dent) now famously remarked that “you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” The quote is astute, but in reality, the contrast may be starker. We ask our heroes to sacrifice their lives not just to avoid villainy, but to avoid even the slightest moral imperfection.
As a narrative-driven enterprise, politics is not immune to the public fascination with martyrdom. But in a field where stakes (for the politicians themselves) are rarely life and death, the threshold is obviously lowered. In a similar sense, there is no unassailable virtuosity in the political sphere, and one group’s martyr may be another group’s antichrist. This makes unearthing martyrization a far more subjective and precarious undertaking in Washington than it is in Hollywood.
Reince Priebus, for one, may have never meant to die for his cause, but he nonetheless appears to be treading the jagged path to martyrdom. The former chair of the Republican National Committee has dedicated his career to the consolidation of power, serving both his personal aspirations as well as the bureaucratic interests of his party. Using this frame to evaluate Priebus’ political behavior, his choice to sign on as Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff initially seemed like a savvy move.
What Priebus did not anticipate was Trump’s extreme disdain for anything that he perceives as disloyalty. As RNC chair and presidential hopeful, the pair found themselves in a prolonged verbal spat after Trump became vocal about what he perceived to be mistreatment by the RNC. The tensions reached a boiling point when Priebus reportedly asked Trump to drop out of the race long after Trump had already secured the Republican nomination. As a result, the duo entered their stint as co-workers on somewhat dicey terms, leaving the new Chief of Staff a minuscule margin of error.
Since January, Priebus has been unabashedly criticized by Trump’s White House staff and even by Trump himself, albeit more indirectly. Formerly known as a shrewd and tactical politician, he has quickly earned a reputation as a power-hungry micro-manager who frequently oversteps his boundaries. He remains unwilling to relinquish his devotion to the GOP’s more traditional agenda, and apparently has not played his cards close enough to the vest, leading to talks of auditions for a replacement Chief of Staff.
As negative stories continue to leak about Priebus’ performance, his prospects for political advancement dwindle. A firing from his White House post would be a nail in his coffin, at least short-term. While he will be lauded by GOP elites for not compromising with Trump, most Republicans are looking for party unity and as POTUS, the Don gets the benefit of the doubt every time. If Priebus gets the axe, he immediately earns martyr status among Paul Ryan and company. But in doing so, he sacrifices the reputation that he has spent a lifetime manufacturing, and forgoes any presidential aspirations he may have harbored for 2024 and beyond.
Bernie Sanders is perhaps the most prominent example of modern political martyrdom. In contrast with Trump, Sanders allowed his personal characteristics to take a backseat during the 2016 campaign, accepting his role as figurehead rather than fully-fleshed politician. Speaking in platitudes rather than boasts, Sanders maintained perhaps the most messianic image of any presidential hopeful. The inevitability of his defeat allowed him to do so without risk; he would never be forced to live up to his image under the bright lights of the Oval Office. In keeping with the Christian theming, the Democratic National Committee’s transparent preference for Hillary Clinton, and potentially corrupt means to that end (with Debbie Wasserman-Schulz playing the role of Pontius Pilate), were the garnish on a campaign that was inevitably destined to end in martyrdom. Sanders will never be president. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party, by and large, has moved on to Elizabeth Warren as their future. Sanders has been canonized as a saint of socialism, but at the price of a failed election and a full relinquishment of his prospects for political advancement.
Of course, all of the above begs the question: why does any of this matter? It may sculpt the long-term health of the Trump faction, and maybe even predict the results of the 2020 election. Trump’s behavior will be fascinating to watch; after last month’s AHCA debacle, Trump lobbed some cursory insults at defecting Republicans, but opted not to make a concerted effort at playing the victim card. This was consistent with his campaign trail strategy, where he attempted to paint himself as a true Messiah rather than a future martyr.
As Trump inevitably fails to fulfill many of his lofty guarantees, two roads will open before him. He can risk it all by continuing on his current path, which would lead to disgrace in the case of a 2020 loss or even just an objectively poor performance in office. He can also veer to a new course, where he acknowledges the limitations of his power and shifts blame to his party members. If he chooses the latter course, his 2020 prospects take a massive hit. Trump is a one-dimensional politician, and long ago ceded his ability to rebrand himself while maintaining the strength of his coalition. If Trump doubles back, his chances of being a two-term president drop dramatically.
However, Trump the martyr may be the ideal outcome for his populist faction. Mass frustration with political elites undoubtedly bolsters the raison d’être of Trump’s followers as a voting bloc, and nobody is more talented at unleashing the frustration of the masses than Trump. Political outsider Trump could do so without risk and without sacrificing his reputation as a “winner.” President Trump can no longer have it both ways. If Trump is truly more ideologue than demagogue, he should start sharpening the nails to his cross. Watching whether he does so will be key to understanding the political landscape of 2020 and beyond.