In the Harry Potter books, the titular boy wizard is the subject of a mystical prophecy, destined to come into mortal conflict with the evil Lord Voldemort—and perhaps even capable of vanquishing him. But there’s a wrinkle: One of Harry’s classmates, Neville Longbottom, also fits most of the prophecy’s description: born at the end of the seventh month, to parents who defied Voldemort three times. The prophecy adds, however, that “the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal”—which he does to Harry, in the failed attack that leaves the infant Harry with his iconic lightning-bolt scar. But that attack had only occurred because Voldemort, learning of the prophecy, had assumed it applied to the Potter boy, not little Neville. In other words, as Harry’s sage mentor Dumbledore notes at one point, it was Voldemort’s choice to regard Harry as his predestined foe that made it true.
There’s a similar phenomenon in American politics, which I long ago mentally dubbed The Voldemort Effect. Maybe it’s always been this way, but it seems like especially recently, if you ask a strong political partisan—conservatives in particular, in my experience—which political figures they like or admire, and why, they’ll enthusiastically cite the ability to “drive the other side crazy.” Judging by online commentary, this seems to be an enormous part of Sarah Palin’s appeal. Palin herself certainty seems to understand this. Her favorite schtick, the well to which she returns again and again, is: “Look how all the mean liberals are attacking me!” Weekly Standard writer Matt Continetti even titled his book about the ex-governor “The Persecution of Sarah Palin.” Perversely, liberals end up playing a significant role in anointing conservative leaders.
This is, I think, a bipartisan phenomenon everyone at least subconsciously recognizes: A political figure—though more often a pundit than an actual candidate or elected official—gains prominence largely as a function of being attacked or loathed with special vehemence by the other side. Which means it’s crying out for a convenient shorthand so we can talk about it more easily; I propose “The Voldemort Effect.”
I had the sense that a year or so back, the Obama administration was rather cannily trying to exploit the Voldemort Effect deliberately, treating Rush Limbaugh as the de facto conservative/Republican leader in hopes that conservatives would fall in line, precisely because Limbaugh is very popular with the conservative base and not so much with everyone else. Which, incidentally, is a danger of the Voldemort Effect: It tends to encourage the base to embrace polarizing figures who turn off moderates, which I suspect is why it is normally observed with pundits (who can do that and remain successful) rather than with candidates.