This incessant clamoring by voters and punditry for better “leaders” and more “leadership” is one of the most unsavory, dangerous, and un-American tendencies in political discourse.
When Donald Trump was asked last week by Joe Scarborough what he made of an endorsement from Vladimir Putin—a thug who’s probably murdered journalists and political opponents, and more—the GOP frontrunner responded: “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” before offering an incredibly dumb moral equivalency about the United States also doing “plenty of killing.”
There was plenty of well-earned criticism directed at Trump’s comments. Most commenters weren’t offended because the Russians are being aggressively “led,” mind you, but that Putin does things we don’t approve of. Perhaps if the Russian strongman had used his muscle to tackle global warming, like the Chinese communists are pretending to do, The New York Times editorial page would praise him for his forethought and willingness to act. If Putin banned protests aimed at abortion clinics instead of Pussy Riot, how many progressives would cheer him?
In contemporary American parlance, and maybe it’s always been this way, a “leader” typically describes someone who will aggressively push your preferred policies. How much do Americans really care what this aggressiveness entails?
Trump’s entire case is propelled by the notion that a single (self-identified) competent, strong-willed president, without any perceptible deference to the foundational ideals of the nation, will be able to smash any cultural or political obstacles standing in the way of making America Great Again.
But this is certainly not the first time we’ve seen voters adopt a cultish reverence for a strong-willed presidential candidate without any perceptible deference to the foundational ideals of the country whose personal charisma was supposed to shatter obstacles standing in the way of making America great again. Many of the same people anxious about the authoritarian overtones of Trump’s appeal were unconcerned about the intense adulation that adoring crowds showered on Obama in 2008, though the spectacle featured similarly troubling signs—the iconography, the messianic messaging, and the implausible promises of government-produced comfort and safety. Just as President Trump fans will judge every person on how nice or mean they are to Trump, so too, those rooting against Obama were immediately branded unpatriotic or racist.
Obama’s inevitable failure to live up to the hype has had many repercussions, and none of them healthy.
One: the hypocrisy of liberalism, which only a few years before was lamenting how W.’s abuses had destroyed the republic, now justify Obama’s numerous executive overreaches because they correspond with liberal political aims. Obama’s argument—and thus, the contention of his fans—seems to pivot on the notion that the president has a moral imperative to “act” on his favored policies because the law-making branch of government refuses to do so. That is weird. This reasoning will almost certainly be modus operandi for presidents unable to push through their own agendas—which, considering where the country is headed, will be every president.
Two: other liberals (and maybe many of the same ones) argue that Obama hasn’t done enough with his power; that the president is unwilling to lead, even if there procedural or constitutional barriers for him to achieve what they demand. Too many Americans seem to believe presidents can make laws if they “fight” hard enough, and now view checks and balances as antiquated and unnecessary impediment to progress.
I’m looking forward to the Clinton-Trump version of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.— Kevin D. Williamson (@KevinNR) December 21, 2015
Three: many one-time small-government conservatives, frustrated with president’s success and the impotence and corruption of their party (often a legitimate complaint, but often an overestimation of politicians can accomplish) are interested in finding their own Obama—or what they imagine Obama is: which is to say, a dictator.
Not that this fetishizing of ‘leadership’ is confined to the progressive left or the conservative right. In fact, more than anyone in American discourse, the self-styled moderate pundit loves to talk about leadership. It would be a full-time job cataloging how often a person will read about the nation’s dearth of genuine leadership—which is, in essence a call to ignore the democratic forces that make truly free governing messy and uncomfortable. There are entire conferences teeming with DC technocrats trying to figure out how proles can be led to preferred outcomes and decisions. The moderates seem to believe that organic disagreements can be smoothed over by a smart speech or two, while they always mythologize the political leadership of the past.
For many, it’s always the worst of times, and we’re always in need of the greatest of leaders. It’s worth mentioning that Putin is democratically elected, with polls showing his approval rating usually somewhere in 80s. Unity! Regrettably, sometimes I think that’s how unity would look here, as well. We, on the other hand, have disparate forces with an array of concerns, outlooks, and conflicting worldviews. This is why we might be thankful that federalism and individual freedom, often scoffed at, are at the heart of the American founding.
“There is danger from all men,” wrote John Adams, in what might be the most genuinely conservative of all positions. It crossed my mind recently that today the president of the United States has more power than any king or queen in Europe. Now, obviously you have to have a certain skill set to bring people to some consensus, to make decisions about war and to administrate a massive body like our government. But the president is not your savior. A person empowered to make everything great also has the power to make everything horrible. If a president can alone transform America, then something has gone terribly wrong with the system.
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