Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Messianic Presidency

Donald Trump’s trademark close-lipped, V-shaped smile hasn’t been in much evidence recently. In its place, we’ve seen The Donald either apparently biting his lips, like a man trying not to cry, or the slack, puffy-eyed face of a man who just finished crying. Maybe the magnitude of his newfound responsibilities has finally hit him. Or maybe he’s slowly realized that his strong, emotive electoral base didn’t just pick him for President. They’ve elected him Messiah.

I first noticed this phenomenon during the George W. Bush administration, though others might argue it started far sooner. In the months following September 11th, the President, whom even many Republicans treated like a jocular but insignificant also-ran who stumbled into the White House, suddenly began showing up everywhere. Seasoned journalists, who’d previously mocked his frequent vacations, began hanging on his every word. He became a veritable folk hero, and began receiving almost universal deference.

This included deference from Congress. Though the Constitution establishes the President as Commander-in-Chief of America’s armed forces, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 strictly checks presidential autonomy in military deployment. Except, in 2002, an awestruck Congress gave Bush unlimited authority to move troops without oversight, authority that still applies despite subsequent administration change. Even Congressional Democrats agreed that only an independent, unchecked executive could fix Saddam Hussein’s menace.

Yeah, how’s that working out for you?

As Bush swaggered around America and the globe, promising swift retribution for anyone who threatened his domain, the blatant messianism became undeniable. Though nobody worth mentioning literally considered Bush Christ-like, his loyalists nonetheless expected him to “save” America, redeem world politics, and bring peace on earth. When a fan-made artwork of Bush as heavily muscled Uncle Sam circulated online, preparing to dispense rapid justice, the Old Testament longing for law, prophecy, and payback achieved apotheosis.

As someone whose politics had recently shifted, this messianic hero-worship made me uncomfortable. I wanted a President to lead boldly, sure. Who doesn’t? But Bush’s partisans didn’t look to him for leadership; they sought salvation. Bush himself, to his credit, neither solicited nor encouraged such worship, and though I disputed his policy decisions, he limited himself to enacting policies. Like Monty Python's Brian, followers thrust messiahship on Bush without his permission, maybe against his will.

Thus I felt particularly squeamish, upon Barack Obama’s election, when public pundits and ordinary Democrats directed the same messianic adulation upon him. White liberals expected Obama to usher in a redeemed, post-racial America unblighted by class divisions or Jim Crow baggage. Black activists, by contrast, expected a colleague in the Oval Office, an expectation largely upset by Obama’s greater interest in coalitions than causes. Both sought a messiah who’d redeem America’s original sins, probably supernaturally.

Of course, just as President Bush had virulent detractors across the aisle, President Obama had his enemies. If white liberals considered Obama their black messiah, white conservatives quickly elevated him to Antichrist status. Visiting a gun show in 2015, I was struck that opposition to Obama personally was almost as visible as support for guns. Having a nigh-religious enemy unified Republicans in ways sharing a messiah often didn’t, especially considering how Bush’s star waned post-Katrina.

In exactly this way, President-Elect Trump’s election last week has received undeniably religious acclaim. David Duke has proclaimed Trump a leader for “our people,” and anecdotal evidence has trickled in, accusing American racists of acting out, expecting Donald Trump to redeem their sins. Democrats and progressives, meanwhile, have prophesied fire, flood, and plagues of frogs—or secular damnation into a pre-Doctor King world, anyway. The push-pull between messianism and brimstone condemnation should make Americans nervous.

The President is the only official elected by America nationally. This puts unique burdens on one man’s (or, someday, woman’s) shoulders. The President must ostensibly represent America altogether, not only to itself but to the world. Since around half of eligible Americans don’t vote, and since Trump is America’s second President in a generation to win the Electoral College without the popular consensus, that makes the presidential messiah a difficult role, and a dangerous one

America needs to overcome its messianic imputations. The President can set policies which improve or harm America, but he cannot save or damn us unilaterally. When we expect presidents to redeem the nation overall, we necessarily expect him to take off ourselves the requirement to do right. Obama didn’t save America, and Trump won’t either. Until we stop expecting that, we won’t embrace the necessary efforts of redeeming our nation internally, from our own hearts.

No comments:

Post a Comment