Strangely enough Donald J. Trump and at least some of followers seem to believe that the presidency is magic. They think that the president has the power to transform America, individuals and the world.
The idea behind the Trump presidential fantasy is a simple yet compelling one. The basic concept is that the presidency has shamanistic powers that can bring about a transformation of America and the world. This belief in the magical or shamanistic powers of the presidency explains much of Trump’s appeal and the personality cult that has developed around him.
Many Trump followers; especially older and less sophisticated individuals, think or hope the president has the power to return America to a simpler, more pleasant time. Others hope the President can restore what they see as traditional American values, or bring prosperity by reviving lost industries and restoring what they see as the real economy. There are also others who believe Donald can restore white America or the real America.
The Fantasy of Empowerment and Transformation through the Presidency
Not surpassingly such views appeal most to marginalized groups like working class whites; and individuals normally excluded from the political consensus, such as white nationalists. This mantra of empowerment and transformation through executive power is a core tenant of Steve Bannon’s alt-right ideology and of what we may call the new nationalism.
Yet many will wonder what Trump himself gets or hopes to get from this belief and the presidency. My guess is that Trump is seeking redemption and salvation through the Oval Office.
From what I have read of him, Trump is one man who has a lot to be ashamed of. His business career is a long litany of scams, shady deals, failures and questionable practices. Over the decades Trump has been accused of racism, sexual assault, bribery, fraud and doing business with the Mafia among other offenses.
Remember Donald is a Christian; who grew up Presbyterian with at least a nominally pious Scottish mother. He may actually feel guilty about some of the things he has done such as Trump University and reality TV.
Trump might believe that he can achieve redemption through the presidency. He hopes to make up for his past sins; and those of his father Fred Trump, through “public service.” The Donald may also think he can erase his shameful past with a successful stint in the White House.
Such magical thinking might sound absurd but it is no more absurd than Trump’s campaign or some of his promises such as the Wall. Nor is such thinking that far off from that of earlier Presidents; such as Theodore Roosevelt who was ashamed of his ill health and his father’s draft-dodging during the Civil War.
Will Magical Thinking Doom Trump to Failure
Such magical thinking might doom Trump and his administration to failure because of the unrealistic expectations. We saw a similar pathology in the Obama administration after reality exposed “Hope” as little more than a shallow catchphrase.
How will Trump react when he realizes that he cannot achieve either salvation or redemption by sacrificing himself upon the altar in the Oval Office? How will his true believers act when they finally learn that “Make America Great Again” is nothing but a slogan?
The most likely outcome will be something like the Carter administration. That is a lonely and embattled president betrayed his own party and abandoned by voters. Jimmy Carter; like Trump, ran as a transformative candidate and a populist promising great change and delivered nothing. He went down to a dismal defeat at Ronald Reagan’s hands after a year of foreign policy humiliations.
The Book that Explains the Trump Presidential Fantasy
An excellent overview of the magical thinking behind the fantasy of the omnipotent president can be found in Gene Healy’s The Cult of the Presidency. Healy does a great job of exposing the unrealistic assumptions Americans have of the presidency and their historical origins.
Particularly disturbing is this list of the roles a president is expected to assume. The fantasy president’s job titles include:
- World Leader
- Protector of the Peace – (I would say policeman or sheriff of the world).
- Chief Legislator – in reality the president has little influence or control over Congress as Trump recently learned in the health care debacle.
- Manager of Prosperity
- Voice of the People
It is obviously impossible for any human being to assume those roles. Yet it is obvious that a significant portion of the American electorate thinks just that. Trump won partially by pandering to that wishful thinking.
Healy also exposes the intellectual and cultural basis of this concept of the presidency. He refers to Thomas Cronin’s 1970 essay Superman: Our Textbook President. Cronin examined dozens of political science textbooks published between 1955 and 1970 and found descriptions of the president that sounded more like the Last Son of Krypton than the chief executive of a modern republic.
“Little wonder then, that small children raised in that environment imbibed the view that those wielding power were almost invariably benevolent, and none more benevolent, or more powerful than the president,” Healy wrote. That partially explains Trump; those small children are now his voters.
Pew found that 53% of those over 65 preferred Trump and his projection of a strong. Trump does best among those who grew up in the age when the presidency was glorified and worse with those raised with postmodern skepticism of the office. Around 57% of Americans between 18 and 30 thought Trump’s presidency was illegitimate a poll from the Black Youth Project, the University of Chicago and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found.
Persons raised with the textbook Superman, Kennedy and Camelot or memories of FDR want Trump. Those who grew up with Saturday Night Live, South Park, Jay Leno monologues, The Daily Show, Watergate and Monica Lewinsky loathe the man.
What Trump Voters Think
To be fair most Trump voters probably don’t subscribe to the magical thinking. A large percentage of them even understand and sometimes freely admit that the Donald is a buffoon and fraud.
Here’s how I break down the Trump voters:
- True believers. Those who believe in Presidential magic and accept the Trump presidential fantasy as reality. Around 20%
- The useful idiot school. Conservatives and others who view Trump as a useful idiot they can control and manipulate for their own purposes. This view is far more wide spread than many people realize. During the election I heard radio talker Dennis Prager tell a listener to vote for Trump because Vice President Mike Pence will be making all the decisions. Around 30%.
- Protest voters. This might include leftists out to punish Democrats for nominating Hillary; or nihilists out to fuck the system by putting bozo the clown in the White House. Around 10%.
- Conservative settlers. Conservatives who think some influence in a Trump White House is preferable to no influence in a Clinton Administration. Some of them are only interested in one issue such as guns or abortion and willing to settle for Trump if he gives them that. Around 20%.
- Republican diehards. Those party loyalists who would vote for anybody the party ran no matter what. Such people would have voted for Charles Manson if the GOP nominated him and quite probably campaigned for the murderous maniac. Around 20%. (Note: I’m not picking on Republicans here, a similar percentage of Democrats would vote for Lex Luthor or Freddy Krueger if their party nominated him).
Thankfully the believers in the magical presidency appear to be a minority but disturbingly the president is probably one of them.
This of course brings us to an important question only history can answer. Will Donald J. Trump finally kill off the disgusting spectacle of the cult of the presidency and the magical thinking that animates it?
I would say no, because this powerful fantasy still has a strong hold on the American imagination. A more likely scenario is that the true believers in presidential magic will simply will turn on Trump and blame him for the office’s impotence.