The Dwight Schrute Theory of American Culture
This piece was adapted from Russell Moore's newsletter. Subscribe here.
This week on my podcast, I talked to Rainn Wilson, the writer, actor, and comedian who played the character Dwight Schrute on The Office. (For the first time, my kids insisted on attending a recording of The Russell Moore Show.)
As he and I were talking, I started to realize that Dwight might explain how we've arrived at this scary moment in American life.
In his (amazingly good) history of the television show, The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s, journalist Andy Greene tells of a fierce debate that broke out among the writers and producers of the show. When Steve Carell, the actor who played Michael Scott, left the show after seven seasons, the team had to decide which character would replace him as the "World's Best Boss" at Dunder Mifflin Scranton.
"I did not think Dwight should be the boss because I think Dwight is not as benign as Michael Scott," recounts one of the writers, Aaron Shure. "He's like this weird amalgam of Mennonite and Star Trek nerd."
"I also didn't want Dwight to be empowered because I was afraid he wouldn't be funny anymore with power," Shure says. "It's funny if he sets the office on fire and blowtorches all the doorknobs. But if he did that all day long without any sort of check on his behavior, it would be terrifying."
By contrast, writer Danny Chun argues that responsibility might have changed Dwight's character for the better. "To me it felt like he was going to do some insane, inappropriate, horrible, and cruel things, but he may now suddenly be forced into a position to contemplate what he was doing a little more, and that seemed intriguing."
This in-house dispute among television writers in Sherman Oaks, California, reflects one of the most fundamental issues in American culture right now. Our nation seems precarious and anxious because our institutions are more than just weak. They're also scary. When we look at the tech industry, public health authorities, the press, law enforcement, political bodies, the church, or nearly any other organization in American life, we see two almost equally terrifying realities.
On the one hand, we see leaders who lack good judgment. No one really questions whether the scientists and engineers working on artificial intelligence programs in Silicon Valley are good at what they do. Rather, we fear they're as skilled as those who created a social media ecosystem that's highly effective at isolating people through algorithms and enraging them with disinformation.
Similarly, no one wonders whether the pharmaceutical marketers who sold entire populations into opioid addiction knew what they're doing. We worry they knew all too well and all too much.
The little nub of truth at the root of this fear is where conspiracy theories thrive. Anxious people start to assume there are all sorts of highly competent, morally depraved people running everything around them. That can be scary.
But the Dwight Schrute problem is even scarier. One of the most popular episodes in the series was the one referenced by Shure, in which Dwight plans a fire drill by torching doorknobs and sends the office into such a frenzy that someone has a heart attack. But as Shure notes, Dwight was limited in his ability to carry out mayhem. He was just the assistant to the regional manager.
Michael Scott is an idiot, to be sure. But his idiocy is hemmed in by sweetness and sincerity. He is a delusional narcissist in many ways, but he ultimately wants to be loved and accepted by family and friends. Even when he does objectively awful things (like attempting to frame the human resources director for a crime), he still seems to have some sense of boundaries. Michael simply wants to sing karaoke with Jim, be invited to parties by Ryan, and serve as the godfather at the christening of Pam's baby.
When Dwight becomes manager, he hangs a dictator-style portrait of himself in the office and has the desk modeled after that of Saddam Hussein's son. But all of it seems somewhat innocuous because his position is temporary. His power appears limited.
We see these same pictures in our culture. People start to worry when they realize their leaders have neither the expertise to navigate challenges nor brakes for their worst impulses. What could be funny in a person without power can be terrifying in someone with actual authority.
Perhaps that's why people find ways to mythologize institutions or leaders when things start looking scary. To some, a political leader without a moral compass is playing brilliant "four-dimensional chess" that only looks chaotic because he's too smart to let "them" know what he's doing. We tell ourselves that a pastor who screams uncontrollably is nonetheless a church-growth guru who can take the congregation to the next level.
Behind those stories is the assumption that, as some Office writers thought of Dwight, responsibility itself will transform character and competence. Dwight might put Sprinkles the cat in the freezer to euthanize it, but once he's manager, the thought goes, he'll actually step up to the task. The stakes are high, after all.
This magical thinking helps us sleep through the night, but it isn't true. Yes, Dwight finally becomes manager at the series end, but only after a long character-altering arc.
The idea that private character doesn't matter to public leadership is not only morally corrosive but also fear-inducing. Regardless of whether someone is the regional manager of a midlevel northeastern paper company, a church bishop, or the president of the United States, the position itself doesn't suddenly transform the person.
The same dynamic is true of life in Christ. Jesus tells us, "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much" (Luke 16:10). What's internal to a person eventually shows itself. A diseased tree cannot yield good fruit (Matt. 7:18), even if the whole community is counting on it to combat starvation. Dwight Schrute might be right that nitrogen is the most essential element for "above-ground leafy growth," but all the nitrogen in the world can't grow something out of a dead root.
Any mythology needs a chaos figure--a Loki, a Joker, a Dwight. But when those figures get put in charge, the results are bleak. We start giving up on character and competence and start looking for an even more chaotic figure to put checks on the first. In an office, on a film set, in a country, or in a church, that way leads to "Threat Level Midnight" (one of The Office episodes). And deep down, we all know it.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.