The President Is Not Superman

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Written By Pinang Driod

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America is facing an existential authoritarian threat from Donald Trump and the Republican Party in 2024, in part because voters have for too long thought of the presidency as an omnipotent throne.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

  • What does the working class really want?
  • Harvard’s president should resign, Graeme Wood argues.
  • The era of easy money is over. That’s a good thing.
  • Science is becoming less human.

The Glare of Presidential Power

President Joe Biden is trying to run for reelection on a record of policy successes. In modern American politics, this is a nonstarter: Many Americans no longer tie policy successes or failures to individual politicians. Instead, they decide what they like or don’t like and then assign blame or credit based on whom they already love or hate. Donald Trump understands this problem and exploits it. Whatever his other emotional and intellectual failings, he has always grasped that many American voters now want a superhero, not a president.

The public’s cultish fascination with celebrity is not a new problem, but it’s getting worse. Back in 1992, I was a young professor living in New Hampshire. I was teaching political science back in those days, but I had several years of practical experience from working in city, state, and federal politics. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the madness that settles over the Granite State during the presidential primaries. I went to several events, and I started to worry about how dysfunctionally Americans regard the office of the chief executive.

As various contenders—including the right-wing populist Pat Buchanan—made their way through the state, I got to hear voters directly addressing the candidates. As far as I could tell, they had one overriding message for the people contending to be the Leader of the Free World at a time of tremendous global instability, and it sounded something like this:

I am an unemployed pipe fitter from Laconia, and I would like to know when you’re going to get me a job.

Say what you will about Bill Clinton, but he got it. He’d bite his lip and exude kilocalories of well-practiced empathy. George H. W. Bush—who defeated Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis four years earlier by depicting the Duke as a liberal android with antifreeze in his veins—took his turn in the barrel, checking his watch during a debate and trying to get across a message of caring by saying “Message: I care.”

I always knew that a fair number of voters would form “parasocial” relationships with presidents, a phenomenon—one that is perfectly normal, within limits—in which people think they are connected to, and know, celebrities. What I was not prepared for, however, was to see up close how ordinary citizens think of the American president as Superman (or, if you prefer, the Green Lantern), a nearly omnipotent being who can create new realities through sheer willpower. In 1992, and again during the less contentious 1996 election, I came to understand better how the presidency in the postwar era—and especially during the Cold War—had become so large and its reach so broad that the glare of its powers wiped out the ability of voters to see any office below it.

When I would sit through events in northern New England, I was stunned that the local citizenry seemed unaware of any other level or branch of government. As an occasional talking head on New Hampshire television, I would sometimes try to engage some of these folks. I would ask: Do you have a mayor? A city council? Who is your state representative? (New Hampshire has one of the smallest ratios of voters to legislators in its House of Representatives in the union.) Have you called your state senator? What about the governor? How about your member of Congress?

Sometimes, people knew who these other officials were, and sometimes they didn’t. But in the end, there was an unshakeable faith that if you were unemployed in New Hampshire, the buck stopped in Washington, D.C.

Let’s not be too harsh in blaming the voters. Politicians—in America and elsewhere— encourage this view by doing what politicians do, taking credit for everything good that happens in the nation and sticking blame for the bad stuff on their opponents. It’s a stupid and dangerous game. When it works, it’s magic. Crime fell on your watch? Of course it did; well done, Mr. President. A new wonder drug was developed? You did that, sir. But when things go bad, the temptation to evade blame is overwhelming.

Worse, partisans have every interest in catastrophizing the state of the nation: No one runs on a slogan of “Hey, things are basically okay but we can do better.” Instead, they seek to convince voters in each cycle that the nation is a hot mess and that their nominee for president is the savior who can fix everything—even the stuff that isn’t broken. (Ironically, voters generally don’t care about the one area over which presidents do have nearly full control, foreign policy, unless it’s related to terrorism.)

Republicans, in particular, are the masters at continuously depicting the country as a hellhole and then arguing that the only recourse is to have more hailing to the chief. Their position is rooted in both bad faith and logic: The GOP is becoming a minority party, and it knows that the peculiar path through the Electoral College to the White House is the best hope for exercising national power. But make no mistake: Democrats, too, have an obsession with the presidency. The scholar Mark Lilla calls this the Democratic “daddy complex,” the belief that the president is a father figure who can solve all our problems—which is why so many Democrats show up for presidential elections and then ignore almost everything else.

Trump has played to both sides of the Superman/daddy concept, encouraging a cult of personality that endows one man with saintly powers—a man who never has to deliver, and who can never fail but can only be failed by others. (Trump reportedly wanted to emerge from his COVID treatment at Walter Reed hospital by unveiling a Superman emblem under his shirt.) His GOP competitors still refuse to recognize the irrationality of the Trump cult; in the primary debates, they have argued over policies, as if those matter. Only Vivek Ramaswamy has tried to replicate the Trump celebrity dynamic, but cults do not transfer well and his featherweight Trumpism has had limited appeal even within the GOP.

Biden, meanwhile, has clumsily tried to play the personality game by branding good economic news as “Bidenomics.” Ironically, Biden actually can take at least some credit for the economy (as an extension of his legislative successes), but tacking his name onto economic conditions when voters flatly refuse to draw that connection is a risky and hollow move that cannot even begin to break through the noise of Trump’s blood-and-soil fascism and cries for social and cultural vengeance.

Cults of personality are always a danger in mass politics, and never more so than when unscrupulous opportunists such as Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán or Recep Tayipp Erdoğan warp democratic politics by fusing the idea of the nation to themselves. The world is living through an authoritarian revival, despite some democratic successes (in Poland, most recently). America should be the example to other democracies; instead, years of glorifying individual leaders of both parties have left voters in the United States with an unrealistic understanding of the presidency and its powers—a civic weakness that Trump is exploiting every day on the campaign trail.

Related:

  • Trump voters are America too.
  • How Trump gets away with it

Today’s News

  1. Special Counsel Jack Smith asked the Supreme Court to rule quickly on Trump’s claim that he is immune from federal prosecution for crimes committed while in office, before an appeals court can act on the matter.
  2. The Supreme Court will not hear a challenge to Washington’s ban on conversion therapy for minors.
  3. The United States blocked a United Nations Security Council draft resolution on Friday that called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. The U.S. offered amendments to the draft, including a condemnation of the October 7 attacks.

Dispatches

  • Famous People: Can a four-week online course turn you into a party-hosting genius? Kaitlyn and Lizzie sign up for one to find out.

Explore all of our newsletters here.


Evening Read

Jim Young / Bloomberg / Getty

This Is What Happens to All the Stuff You Don’t Want

By Amanda Mull

When you order a pair of sweatpants online and don’t want to keep them, a colossal, mostly opaque system of labor and machinery creaks into motion to find them a new place in the world. From the outside, you see fairly little of it—the software interface that lets you tick some boxes and print out your prepaid shipping label; maybe the UPS clerk who scans it when you drop the package off. Beyond that, whole systems of infrastructure—transporters, warehousers, liquidators, recyclers, resellers—work to shuffle and reshuffle the hundreds of millions of products a year that consumers have tried and found wanting. And deep within that system, in a processing facility in the Lehigh Valley, a guy named Michael has to sniff the sweatpants.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

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  • The type of charisma that saves a holiday party
  • The “permanently orphaned”

Culture Break

Adam Driver
Will Heath / NBC

Listen. Many of us complain about being busy—but has that become an excuse for our inability to focus on what matters? Becca Rashid and Ian Bogost discuss on this week’s episode of How to Keep Time.

Watch. Adam Driver’s eerie intensity on Saturday Night Live (streaming on Peacock) offered an idiosyncratic antidote to bland winter cheer.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

Here in the Nichols home, we decorated the Christmas tree a bit early this year, not least because we bought ours early because of the ongoing tree supply issues. (In our little part of Rhode Island, trees are typically cleaned out by the first week of December.) My wife and I put on some Christmas specials, and I was reminded of something I wrote a few years ago about how most of the classic Christmas shows are terrible.

Don’t bother me with your Frosty or Heat Miser nonsense; those Rankin/Bass productions were creepy, especially everyone’s favorite, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Heck, I wasn’t even the first Atlantic writer to take a bat to the Rudolph special: My colleague Caitlin Flanagan torched the show thoroughly in 2020. It’s a bleak message for kids; almost everyone around Rudolph, including Santa and Rudolph’s dad, Donner, is horrible. (I particularly loathe Fireball, but don’t get me started.) I think only A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are the enduring classics, but if I’m going to be around lousy people at Christmas, I’d much rather rewatch Denis Leary in The Ref, which has more warmth (and lots more Christmas-spirit f-bombs) than any of those weird puppet shows.

— Tom

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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