How America Turned Its President Into a God
Gallons of e-ink have already been spilled over the 2016 presidential election outcome, and barrels more will undoubtedly be required by journalists and scholars in future decades. Until President-elect Donald Trump actually takes office, I have few concrete thoughts about the nation’s future trajectory.
One element of the 2016 campaign, however, seems to have been underexplored in the flood of post-election hot takes: over the last ten years or so, some Americans have developed a curiously persistent tendency to speak of presidential candidates in terms once reserved for the divine.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that emotions haven’t run high over presidential elections in the past (after all, for millennials like me, every election since 2000 has been “the most important election of our lifetime”). But this deifying tendency seems to have become uniquely explicit in the last couple of cycles—specifically in the campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and, yes, even Donald Trump.
In 2008, Ezra Klein (currently the head of Vox) gushed about Barack Obama in overtly messianic terms: “He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I’ve heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.” San Francisco Gate columnist Mark Morford had this to say: “Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.”
Hillary Clinton, for her part, received a similar apotheosis. Writing for Lena Dunham’s website, Virginia Heffernan declared that “Hillary Clinton did everything right in this campaign, and she won more votes than her opponent did. She won. She cannot be faulted, criticized, or analyzed for even one more second. Instead, she will be decorated as an epochal heroine far too extraordinary to be contained by the mere White House. . . . Hillary is Athena.” Similarly, New York Times journalist Michael Barbaro, whom one might think should know better, turned in a bizarrely freewheeling piece describing Clinton in worshipful terms. “Her arms thrust skyward, one after the other, in what starts to feel like a dance. There’s an unfamiliar sense of abandon and joy.”
Donald Trump also got this treatment. In the depths of the alt-right Internet, Trump is routinely referred to as “God-Emperor Trump”—a reference to the Warhammer 40,000 science fiction series. Here a brief digression is in order: Warhammer 40,000 is an extremely dark (and, it bears mention, brilliantly realized) franchise that takes place in A.D. 40,000. In this setting, a fascistic and hyper-religious “Imperium of Man” dominates the galaxy, but must constantly fend off incursions from all manner of alien monsters. The entire Imperium is held together through the psychic will of the God-Emperor of Mankind, who serves as both a physical and spiritual rallying point for the whole human race. It isn’t hard to see how a particular strain of Trump supporters with toxic views might see their values reflected in this vision—hence the description of Trump as a “God-Emperor.” But this tendency isn’t limited to the dredges of the alt-right: conservative outlet WorldNetDaily chalked up Trump’s narrow win to direct divine intervention.
None of this reverence is healthy or constructive.
As I’ve noted before, political theorist Eric Voegelin warned against the ever-present temptation to “immanentize the eschaton”—to seek to usher in heaven on earth through political change. Promises to “make America great again,” or to “be on the right side of history” both employ eschaton-immanentizing language: one envisions an imaginary golden age to which Americans can return, the other assumes that progressive values will inevitably win the day and realize utopia. (Contrast this with Herbert Hoover’s rather more earthly-minded 1928 slogan: “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.)
The temptation to deify the president makes sense, at least on some level. As a matter of functional reality, Americans aren’t wrong in recognizing that modern presidents are operating at a historical apex of institutional authority. Given the ever-expanding scope of executive power via administrative agencies, the President’s role in the lawmaking process, and the President’s power to shape many aspects of the judiciary, it stands to reason that the President is far-and-away the most powerful single actor in the American government (the academic shorthand for this is unitary executive theory).
All of this serves to illustrate a fundamental danger at the heart of today’s secular age: the flawed assumption that a post-religious society will convert into a world of ultra-rational, utilitarian actors capable of higher-minded thinking. It seems far more likely that language formerly reserved for the actually transcendent will simply be directed at popular forms of transcendence-by-proxy.
In a world where elections have the cosmic stakes of Titanomachies, deviations from political scripture must be punished as heresies. The person who dares to suggest that Bernie Sanders would’ve made a better candidate than Hillary Clinton, or that Donald Trump almost certainly has no comprehension of religious issues, faces immediate accusations of disloyalty. (Never mind the fact that party orthodoxy seesaws dramatically: Republicans supported amnesty for immigrants thirty years ago, and Democrats opposed gay marriage twenty years ago.)
In this climate, I am wholly unsurprised that Trump’s win met with extreme backlash. Protests and outpourings of rage would have occurred no matter who won the election: the 2016 cycle pitted one tribe’s god against another, resulting in the inevitable collapse of one side’s eschatological vision. If Clinton had won, Trump’s supporters would be the ones marching in the streets shouting about the end of America.
This is what happens when the boundaries between sacred and secular institutional authority collapse, and why endless talk of politics in doomsday terms polarizes the country ever more dramatically. When every election is described as Armageddon, American tribes inevitably rally to their respective messiahs.
But the President is not, and will never be, a god on earth.