In modern American history there have been two kinds of presidents. They can be described as cult of personality presidents and managers. Today, for the first time, we have back-to-back cult of personality presidents, a development that may have significant implications regarding what America wants from its commanders in chief. Before considering what this means, it’s important to understand how these two types of presidents differ.
I became aware of this difference between presidencies just after Donald Trump was elected. On of my cousins is a huge Trump fan and posted on Facebook a part of the wall in her apartment dedicated to the president filled with photos and memorabilia. At the time this struck me as somewhat odd, and even a bit disturbing. But then I remembered that during the previous eight years it was not odd at all to see photos and even large posters of Barack Obama in my friends’ apartments in Brooklyn.
In a nutshell, the cult of personality president is one whose picture you might find on household walls while they are in office. For those old enough, try this thought experiment. Imagine walking into a friend’s place in 1996 and seeing a big poster of Bill Clinton. One’s immediate reaction to this, no matter political affiliation, would most likely have been, “Dude, why do you have a picture of Bill Clinton on your wall?”
Since Franklin Roosevelt, who owing to his three plus terms became a new kind of president, we have had by my calculation four more cult of personality presidents — John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Obama and Trump. What these men have in common that is not true of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter or either of the Bushes, is that many Americans vested in them more than just faith to run the government. They were also considered heroes, role models and examples of what America itself is about.
Americans, at least the ones who supported these cult of personality presidents, invest in them very personally. This changes the nature of political debate; it moves it from a relational debate to a very emotional one. We might almost think of it as the difference between criticizing a family member or a casual acquaintance. The faults and virtues of an acquaintance can be considered in a neutral manner, but the family member is far more likely to be vigorously defended in spite of their faults.
It is tempting to think of the cult of personality presidency as deeply un-American. It mirrors monarchy in a way that runs against the grain of the concept of a society of equals. On the other hand, our first president was also our first cult of personality president. George Washington was revered in a way that it is difficult for any modern American to really understand. Washington himself understood this, and it played no small part in his decision to limit himself to two terms in office.
Our second president was anything but a cult of personality president. Although a great hero, and my personal favorite founding father, John Adams was cantankerous and not widely loved. The song “Sit Down, John,” from the musical 1776, may best sum up the general attitude towards him. He only served one term and that may have been a good thing, as it secured the very American notion of the peaceful transfer of executive power.
In modern times, the toggling between cult of personality presidents and managers has often served to soothe the body politic. Under managerial presidents our political differences still exist, but we are less personally invested in their Oval Office avatars. This is especially true of those who support those presidents. Plenty of people hated George W. Bush, but few of his supporters felt personally attacked by that animosity.
The fact that we are beginning our 11th year of cult of personality presidencies has a lot to do with the tribal and angry tenor of our currents politics. Dispassion and reason, two key elements of a functioning democracy, are harder to come by, because we invest ourselves so deeply in these heroes.
But are we now locked into a future full of cult of personality presidents? Has media, social and otherwise, inexorably tied us to figures that inspire devotion, who we come to represent in some way in our daily interactions with the news and with each other? It seems so.
Most in the potential upcoming field of Democratic challengers to Trump fit the cult of personality model. Politicians like Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, and Elizabeth Warren would all fit that mold in one way or another. The potential managers, like Sherrod Brown, Andrew Cuomo and Michael Bloomberg, feel too bland to go up against the power of Trump’s personality.
On the other hand, the only constant in American politics is that things always change. Perhaps wide swaths of the American people will grow weary of their entire lives being wrapped up in politics. Perhaps even under the constant assault of political messaging they will seek once again to have a presidency that can, at least sometimes, be ignored.
So powerfully engaged are most of us now in the adoration or hatred of Trump that such a future seems remote. But maybe America will take a breath and step back from so much personal investment in some president to be. If not, we will need to find ways to cope with a society in which emotion, not reason, rules, and in which the fight for power is a zero sum game.