To this day, one of my greatest accomplishments is the fact that I was able to change my name in my eighth grade yearbook. To me, it was proof that I could reinvent myself whenever I wanted. The book just had so much finality to it — locked into history forever. If you journey into the depths of the hidden basement archives of Curtis Middle School right now, you’ll find a 2010 picture of a short and skinny black kid named Rusty Russell. Looking for Paul Russell? Sorry, you’re out of luck. As far as the yearbook is concerned, he doesn’t exist. Rusty was the name I always wanted, so in the moment, it was the name I had.
The scheme began when I moved to a new middle school a few months into the year. The administration didn’t have some of my information on file, so they asked me — a pimply, irresponsible pre-teen — to write down who I was and how I could be addressed. If I was ever going to change my identity, this was my shot. So I did it.
When I watch the unfolding of this year’s presidential election, it’s clear that each candidate has also undergone a bit of an identity transformation. Running for elected office is all about determining what the country needs and then becoming that person. In the same way that the Paul Russell in a job interview is far more put together and competent than the Paul Russell folks normally encounter, the Trump and Clinton characters in the 2016 election are just that — characters.
This practice of office-seekers reinventing themselves is no secret. For years, candidates have hired “political strategists” and “communications directors” who are given the sole responsibility of determining the responses, mannerisms and actions of the public’s ideal leader so that they can help their candidate fit the mold. Each campaign comes up with a few unique ideas about how to attract voters, but there is one trait that is present in most of the resulting carefully constructed personas: invulnerability.
We want someone who always gets it right, someone who doesn’t take BS from anybody, someone who doesn’t fail unless there is another person to blame and a good reason for it. This yearning for a consummate commander-in-chief is symptomatic of our own unwavering faith in the political system. We assume that the president has so much power to ruin or rectify the current state of the country that if we elect anyone who makes visible mistakes or falls short of perfection like the rest of us, our well-being as a country will tumble down the drain. So the candidates must fool us into thinking they are infallible if they want even a chance of winning in November.
That’s why something like Clinton’s pneumonia diagnosis is so jarring: it breaks character. Earlier this month, Clinton stood before a gaggle of donors and proclaimed “I stand between you and the apocalypse.” Though the comment was meant facetiously, it captured the essence of the true perception of her amongst the group. In progressive circles, she isn’t just a candidate. She’s a savior. And saviors don’t need sick days.
Clinton’s hope, and the hope of every other candidate in history, is for Americans to look up to the debate stage and see not merely two humans, but instead two manifestations of good and evil: one being who will ruin life as we know it and one being who we can fully and perfectly trust to save us. With a candidate as unfit for the presidency as Donald Trump running against her, it’s easy for many of us in the spectating population to forget that she is neither a superhero nor a messiah.
Alas, a week after her apocalypse comments, the mighty Hillary Clinton found herself in bed. She needed three sick days. The fact that she happened to catch pneumonia won’t have any effect on her aptitude for the role of the president of the United States, but it does remind us that she, along with Donald Trump and all the rest, is a human being with normal, human shortcomings.
My message in this is perhaps a bit cliché, but still necessary nonetheless: regardless of the alter-egos we employ, life has a way of reminding us, and the people around us, who we really are. Presidential candidates and college students alike will often attempt to reinvent themselves for a number of reasons, but if this reinvention isn’t grounded in reality, it can be expected to fold on itself soon enough. That’s how it always works. There is a reason that Rusty Russell isn’t in my ninth grade yearbook or any yearbook thereafter. It wasn’t the truth.
Paul Russell is a sophomore in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Russelling Feathers appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.