The Pied Piper of America

Everyone knows the old folk tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, made famous by Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, and Robert Browning. The story has its origins in a medieval legend in which a piper dressed in a parti-colored robe mysteriously appears out of nowhere -- “there was no guessing his kith and kin,” writes Browning -- and offers, for a sum, to rid the town of its plague of rats. Having done so, he returns to collect his payment. When he is refused he mesmerizes the town’s children with his melodies and leads them away, never to be seen again, except for a single lame child who cannot keep up with his fellows.

Setting aside the obvious differences and allowing for parody, there are curious analogies with the career of the current president of the United States. A man of pied heritage and sonorous aptitudes, he appears practically out of nowhere, proceeds to charm the multitudes with his dulcet airs, and promises to heal a country suffering a cultural and political infestation of metaphorical rats: doubt, cynicism, dissatisfaction, weariness, and dissension. Indeed, he vows a “fundamental transformation” of the current state of affairs, and a vast audience, dazzled by his virtuoso flair for deception, cannot resist his appeal. He raises his pipe to his lips (although, be it said, reading the music off a teleprompter) and before one knows it succeeds in enchanting an entire people who follow him like little children to the wondrous destination he has prepared for them.

In an exchange with Chris Matthews on Hardball, former Newsweek editor Evan Thomas certainly saw it that way. Obama “is going to say, now, children, stop fighting and quarreling with each other.” A skeptical Newsbusters blogger, reacting to Thomas and his ilk, comments on Obama’s numberless queue of rapt believers, “They would follow him to hell singing his praises.” They were feeling the love, the allure, the temptation, and had readily succumbed to the piper’s rich chromatics. As Obama said of his Secret Service detail, they “follow me wherever I go.” And follow him they did, to the very edge of the precipice of unsustainable debt, immigration chaos, racial controversy, military fallback, electoral unscrupulousness, American unexceptionalism, juridical nonfeasance, greater insecurity, and growing international derision.

This was not the “fundamental transformation” they had expected. Fortunately, among those who were attracted by the message of change, the honeyed cadences or the charismatic personality of a much-dappled candidate, and had enthusiastically joined his troupe, there were a sufficient number of  “lame” votaries who lagged far enough behind to retain some degree of perspective, hobbling back with the warning that all was not what it seemed. This only confirmed and reinforced the skepticism of the more realistic and conservative observers who found the piper’s canticles rather more cloying than ambrosial and wisely stayed at home. Although many of the original naifs have now bethought themselves, plugging their ears against the president’s siren inducements and returning to where they started from, many are still determined to plunge over the cliff.