As President Donald Trump alternately flailed and railed against the pandemic last spring, it was understandable that many Americans craved honest advice rather than ad hominem attacks and quack cures. Cuomo (D) and Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, filled that void. Fauci, who is now 80, became an avuncular grandpa figure on the left, while Cuomo turned into a bizarre sex symbol.
At least some participants in the phenomenon, like writer Rebecca Fishbein, recognized that their affection for Cuomo was a kind of pandemic-induced Stockholm syndrome.
“I catch myself touching my hair (not my face!) when he talks about an increase in testing capacity. I swooned when he told a reporter he had his own workout routine.” she wrote last March. “You may think my brain is poisoned. You are probably correct.”
But figures including Ellen DeGeneres and “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah stoked the phenomenon more credulously. “You should love a leader who engages the people and remembers that they’re serving the people,” Noah told DeGeneres in an April interview. “Cuomosexual” merchandise still abounds on Etsy, ranging from pink T-shirts to crudely drawn canvas prints of a shirtless, ripped governor.
How silly that enthusiasm, or even the idea of Cuomo as a leader who “remembers that they’re serving the people,” looks now.
Cuomo scored a $5 million deal for a book touting his pandemic response even as his policy of transferring recovering covid-19 patients to nursing homes may have exacerbated the crisis. And the specific idea of the “Cuomosexual” looks even more grotesque in the context of this week’s damning report from New York Attorney General Letitia James that portrays Cuomo as a serial sexual harasser, charges he has denied.
Cuomo and Fauci are hardly the first public figures to undergo this peculiar transformation.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the object of an unseemly cult of personality late in her Supreme Court tenure. The affection for the “Notorious RBG” acquired an edge of condescension: Ginsburg was simultaneously a powerful inspirational figure, and beyond reproach even for her ultimately disastrous decision not to resign during Barack Obama’s presidency. Valuing Ginsburg’s principles as much as her person, her jurisprudence as much as her jabot, ought to mean respecting her enough to argue with that latter choice, especially. But the logic of fandom precludes holding its objects morally accountable even for their worst mistakes.
This tendency is hardly limited to the left. More than any other politician, former president Trump has fully substituted the dynamics of fandom for those of politics. As authors including conservative columnist Matt K. Lewis and Wall Street Journal White House correspondent Michael C. Bender argue, Trump’s campaigns functioned as much like jam bands’ endless tours than they did a conventional political operation.
“The community that sprang up around Trump’s rallies was seductive and intoxicating,” Lewis wrote in a column. “The attendant friends, activity, music (Trump rallies had a concert-like feel), T-shirts with inside jokes, and circus-like excitement all contributed to the delusion that you were part of a large and important subculture.”
The emphasis on how Trump makes his followers feel, rather than a sober assessment of his performance as president, has made him particularly difficult to dislodge from U.S. politics. But cheering from the stands is different from practicing citizenship. A fan’s job is to admire and defend the object of his affection. A citizen’s role is to judge the public servants they employ. By converting his base into fans, rather than mere voters, Trump made it difficult — if not impossible — for anyone to challenge his hold on his admirers.
Across the political spectrum, it’s long past time for Americans to rediscover some self-respect and to adjust the terms of our relationships with public figures. Andrew Cuomo isn’t a hottie. Even if he was, it wouldn’t matter more than the thousands of dead New York nursing home residents or 11 women he allegedly harassed. Your mileage on whether Trump puts on a great show almost definitely varies. And no spectacle is a substitute for basic competence and dignity.
By all means, enjoy Dwayne Johnson’s arms, root for the Boston Red Sox, and worship at the altar of your diva of choice, be she Dolly Parton or Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Fandom has its place and its pleasures. But do your job as a citizen, too.