The American presidency is a role almost entirely rhetorically constructed through perception. Of course there are certain constitutionally defined powers, but generally speaking, what a president can convince the public of becomes the truth. The president is in a peculiarly unique position where they can create an audience with the American people and lobby them directly for their own image, and influence. If the president says it and the public believes it, it becomes true and if they can convince the public that they deserve to be liked, they will be treated accordingly.
For a people whose government was purportedly founded on the rejection of monarchy, Americans have a strange and ironic reverence for the position of president. The story in U.S. history class goes that George Washington was asked to become king but refused the role because we were trying a new form of government. This myth is especially revealing because it teaches that us Washington was noble and worthy of deification because of his rejection of the pompous title. Now he’s carved into a mountainside and etched into our currency. We are the people of the story that wanted a king. We were rebuffed and created an icon instead.
It is difficult to say how much of our conception of past presidents is shaped by our perception of recent ones. There have certainly been populist campaigns before, but more telling are the myths we tell ourselves about successful presidents. At a certain point, or so we believe, the character of a president becomes their most important attribute, and somewhere after that, celebrity takes over.
Another classic story from U.S. history class is the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate. It was around the time of the popularization of television and the story claims that those who heard the debate over the radio favored Nixon while those who saw the broadcast were impressed by Kennedy’s composure and labeled him the winner over the sweaty, shifty Nixon. It doesn’t matter much if this story is true, but it is very important that we keep telling it. This is evidently a shared belief in the American consciousness, that the presidency is a physically performed role. The story goes that Kennedy won because he looked and acted trustworthy, and in doing so, defined an aesthetic criteria of “presidentiality” and fit himself into it. Kennedy is an especially salient example because he offered a young, romantic face for the presidency. His administration is casually referred to as “Camelot” and history remembers his charisma, his charm and one or two soundbytes.
Since then, the boiling down of presidents into a simple, iconic representation has spread, particularly in the American consciousness and recollection. Beginning perhaps with Kennedy, the presidency has become an increasingly mediated role and the need to break presidents down into recognizable figures has caused a conflation of reality and simulation. Gerald Ford is half-remembered as U.S. president and half-remembered as Chevy Chase falling down on “Saturday Night Live.” Bill Clinton has become the saxophone player in Arsenio Hall who strongly affirmed that he did not sleep with Monica Lewinsky. George W. Bush is now a painter who stumbles over his words. The insidious and misleading aspect of this mediation is that the trivialization of the presidency is beneficial to the presidents themselves.
The largest impact is familiarity, which lessens accountability. The idea that Barack Obama participated in a huge number of, likely unnecessary, drone strikes which killed civilians is popularly pushed aside by a large number of Americans because they perceive him differently. The artiface of the presidency seeps into the reality of their actions. Similarly, many Americans will downplay George W. Bush’s accountability for waging a war under false pretenses because they perceive him as goofy or incapable. The presidency has become a celebrity role, and as a result many Americans struggle to attach any accountability to it.
The sitting president is partial evidence of this trajectory, but American discourse surrounding him is even more clearly so. Donald Trump entered the position with an already established celebrity persona and corporate brand. To see him maintain that after entering the presidency was jarring for many because it forced them to make the connection that the presidency had a brand, and it wasn’t as well-defined as they imagined. The increasing superficiality and celebrity of the role prepared it for a mediated outsider to take hold.
Though public perception may be simplified, the role of the presidency does not lack power. The change has been that people are less aware of that power and where it lies, and, accordingly, less conscious of its usage. The problem with allowing the president to become an icon is that the individual person loses their sense of influence. The icon is immutable, detached and distant. When the focus on Trump is geared towards him as a joke, whether it is his hair, clothes or diet, it doesn’t detract from his power. It just makes him a very dangerous joke.
Conlan Campbell ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Burnsville, Minn. He majors in English with a concentration in media studies and film studies.