What’s your superpower?
I mean, short of being a strange visitor from another planet or coming in possession of a magic ring, hammer or sword, what would give you powers and abilities far above those of the common man (or woman)?
My nominee is: confidence.
Watching the tragic struggle in Ukraine unfold, I started to wonder what made Vladimir Putin so certain he could defy the world and launch – with success – the biggest land war in Europe since Adolph Hitler shot himself in a Berlin bunker in 1945?
Why have (most) of the Russian people supported, or at least tolerated this man, a product of the evil and feared KGB secret police? Why, even, do a depressing number of Americans think that Vlad is actually an OK guy, trying to do his patriotic duty?
Here’s my theory. Putin, like other (temporarily) successful “strong men” before him, projects confidence. There’s a swagger and certainty in his manner. There’s no room for nuance and subtlety. His world is black and white, and you’d better pick the right side, Jack.
Our attraction to being on “the right side” goes back to childhood. I remember a kid in elementary school who was the king of the playground. We’ll call him, “Bill.” Not the best student in the school, or even the most talented, he nevertheless commanded an entourage of admirers.
Other boys followed him around at recess and lunchtime to bask in the glory of the One Kid who glowed with self-assurance. Yes, he was a good athlete, but his mastery also included having the right clothes, the right hobbies and the swagger that comes with all of that.
Ironically, he tended to hold much of his minions in a kind of tolerant contempt. They were little people – both figuratively and actually – and their only function was to provide him and others like him (such as the Queen Bees of the school) with an audience.
Bill did not set the world on fire. He carried some of his charm with him to high school, but the rest of the world did not care he was the 250,000th best football player of the year way back when.
Most of us lack that rock-solid self-admiration that sets us apart in the eyes of the rest of the world. That sort of person, I think, is not deterred by setbacks and simply regards them as laughable anomalies to be quickly overcome on his (or her) march toward a glorious destiny.
This is part of the reason why the folks who make up the Upper Crust of power aren’t necessarily the smartest, most caring or competent of the human race. Suffering through our own insecurities, we tend to stand back and let the guy who seems to know the way, to lead the way.
Eventually, the clothes come off the emperor and the world discovers a person with a bigger self-regard than a brain or heart. All too often the price of that knowledge is counted in death and human misery.
Jim Tortolano’s “Retorts” column alternates (usually) with the “Usually Reliable Sources” feature.
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