In the movie Gladiator, Russell Crowe plays Maximus Decimus Meridius, a Roman general who is betrayed by the demented son of the Emperor. His downfall first leads to him in a slave camp and then as a gladiator in the provinces. His prowess as a fighter leads him to Rome to fight before the emperor, where he is revealed to be the famous general, in Rome to seek his revenge. The movie is a reworked version of the Count of Monte Cristo, but set in imperial Rome.
The subtext of the movie, is that the honor and integrity of the main character is what will eventually bring him home. Maximus is a loyal and honest man who serves Rome, without personal ambition. The bad guy, the Emperor’s son Commodus, is motivated by nothing but personal ambition and a deranged lust for his sister. Maximus fights and wins by the rules, even when the rules are rigged against him. Commodus lies, cheats and even kills his own father to get what he wants.
The juxtaposition, the honorable, rule-based hero, versus the ends justifies the means villain, is a common devise in American culture. When Hollywood made movies with traditional male leads, this was a common setup. Gladiator is probably the last movie featuring a normal male hero. Even though the hero dies in the end, he does so in a way that completes his arc and confirms that underlying assertion. In this case, the brave man died once while the coward died a thousand deaths.
All of this comes to mind when examining the political career of Kris Kobach. He is the champion of immigration patriots, now running for the Senate in Kansas. He had been rumored for jobs in the Trump White House, but Trump’s daughter feared he would be too effective and vetoed the idea. Instead, he has been left twisting in the wind by his own party and by the President he helped to elect. Like Maximus in the slave camp, Kris Kobach is without friends in high places.
Similarly, Kobach is determined to get back to the Imperial Capital, not to slay the emperor, but to be the voice of reason. His Senate run is considered a long shot, given that he lost the gubernatorial race in 2018. On the other hand, that was an off-year election and there was a lot of shenanigans in that race. His own party sabotaged his chances by running third-party candidates. With Trump at the top of the ticket, the winds may be more favorable for Kobach this time.
Of course, there is the chance his own party pulls some shenanigans this time, but with the Senate in the balance, maybe not. Then again, they were happy to throw the 2018 House elections in order to prevent Trump from getting anything done in his first term. Like the movie, Imperial America is thoroughly corrupt and no man can count on the honor of anyone in either party. If Kobach is make it back to the imperial capital, he will do so on the strength of his own virtue.
This belief that in the end, the virtuous will triumph over the villainous, the truth will prevail over falsehoods, is at the heart of civic nationalism. Despite all the evidence around us, the civic nationalist insists that if we get the right people in office, make the right arguments and pass the right laws, all the problems of democracy can be resolved. In order for that to happen, they insist that everyone assiduously play by the rules and support the democratic process.
In this regard, Kris Kobach may be the last true civic nationalist in politics. He is a genuine, issues based candidate that is playing by the rules in order to save that system of rules, not because it advantages him. In fact, the rules disadvantage him, but he is counting on the virtue of his fellow citizens to overcome that reality. His supporters are fighting with him, because they don’t want to give up on a system that has long ago given up on them. They still have hope.
Now, it is unlikely that his supporters will be chanting “Maximus” at Kobach rallies, although it would be great if they did. He is, like the character from the movie, the last champion for an old idea. Maximus was the old idea of Rome, while Kobach is that old idea that was America. While lots of people lament the passing of the old idea, only the champion is willing to fight for it. Like the character in the movie, Kobach’s end is most likely to have his corpse carried out of the arena by his supporters.
At the end of the movie, when they are carrying the hero’s body out of the arena, Commodus lies dead in the dust. The arc of both lives had reached their end. The hero would return to what he loved and to be with his family. The villain and what he represented gone for good. Presumably, what would come next for Rome was not the old Rome represented by Maximus or the Rome represented by Commodus. It would be something different, having gone through this ordeal.
Perhaps that is the best way to look at the Kobach campaign. Maybe he wins and maybe it begins the slow turn back to sanity that seems impossible. Maybe his campaign will ignite the revolt of Middle America. On the other hand, maybe it is the last chapter of the old way of doing things. Perhaps the result will be the final acceptance that what comes next is not a return to the past, but instead an overturning of the present in order to get to something new for our people.
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