Trump’s untimely illness reveals something primal about what we want from our leaders.
For most of history, humans saw their leaders as representatives of God. Two years after his death, Caesar was deified as ‘Divus Julius’ (Divine Julius). At his coronation, ‘heaven and earth agreed’ to Genghis Khan’s selection.
Ancient leaders have always been ‘exceptional’. From birth, they had greater status and power than any of their subjects. Then came the political revolution, and soon after secularisation. Whether it was because of the Civil War in England, or the Revolution in France, leaders were no longer able to claim that ‘divine right’. They lost a significant degree of their exceptionalism. This was compounded by the Enlightenment’s second creation: the concepts of Liberty and Equality. During the founding of the United States, Thomas Jefferson cast into law that ‘all men are created equal’.
Birth of the ‘Politician’
Secularisation and rationalism degraded the position of leaders. But it did not remove their exceptionalism entirely. In the 20th Century, Weber’s description of a charismatic leader — someone who legitimises their actions by extraordinary characteristics that inspire loyalty from their followers — can be found in several secular examples. Churchill, Martin Luther King, Hitler, and Stalin. Leaders lost the exceptionalism that faith once provided them, but they regained it through charisma and personality.
What followed was the professionalisation of politics. Watching speeches today from members of parliaments in Britain, America and Europe this is the arena for a largely similar group of people.
They lack the rhetoric and the emotional pull of leaders before them. But they have greater levels of education and commitment to the people they represent. But as politics became a profession, it also suffered a series of scandals that shattered it. The following events were significant not because of their individual worth, but because of their closeness to each other. In the UK, it was the Iraq War and the expenses scandal. In America, it was lobbying and corruption.
In an attempt to win back voters’ trust, politicians embarked on a series of initiatives to degrade their own power — akin to the internal secularization that took place inside churches during the last century, when priests debased their own scriptures and ceremonies to ensure the tide of science didn’t leave faith behind.
For our politicians, this involved scaling back the infrastructure around them. In Britain, this meant a reduction in their wage and team of support. Until recently, our prime minister was one of the few world leaders without their own plane. Although many point to Trump’s behaviour as having degraded the office of president, the loss of deference and popularisation of the relationship between the US media and politicians has played a part.
At the same time, the democratisation of politics accelerated. It reached a point where we as voters became increasingly powerful. Leaders were no longer able to appeal to divine forces or count on voters being inspired by their charisma. The electorate now has the power to set their wages, expenses, and much more — most of the time through confected anger in the press.
This has created a paradoxical situation. Our leaders have tried desperately to become more like us, but society has never truly warmed up to that. In truth, voters are happy to see politicians suffer long hours under strenuous working conditions, whilst expecting them to adhere to higher moral standards than we would set ourselves.
Perhaps this moral paradox has always existed with people in leadership. But what’s different now, is that through internal ‘degradation’ and voter empowerment politicians presently lack the infrastructure they once had.
Covid-19 has revealed the dangers of this paradox. Boris Johnson was allowed to isolate above Number 10 for days, without anyone realising his condition was deteriorating. And as much as you can blame the President’s lack of seriousness over the issue, the White House has for years been described as cramped and physically falling apart — perfect for the spread of the virus.
Downing Street and the White House have been allowed to become degraded institutions. Partly because politicians don’t dare ask the public for extra cash.
The reaction to Johnson’s and now Trump’s illness however, suggests that voters are not quite as happy with this paradoxical settlement as was previously thought.
So what do voters want?
In the early days of the pandemic, an exceptional outburst of devotion emanated from the public for technocratic figures such as Chris Whitty or Anthony Fauci. But as the crisis has gone on, and conflicts in science are being revealed, once again the public is yearning for that reassuring and mighty hand of control. We need and want more than mere professionals.
The evidence for this is in the public’s reaction to the respective hospitalisations of the two leaders. Across the political aisle, even in polarised America, shocked voters united to wish their leader well. But why the shock?
Despite all the downscaling, we still expect leaders to be above the fray of the disease. We expect them to somehow be more protected than the rest of us. And this expectation persists naturally — without us realising what we have done to our leaders and their surrounding infrastructure. One of the reasons for Downing Street becoming a centre for the virus was the fact that it isn’t built for governing a modern state. The building is not fit for purpose.
The big ‘reveal’
The public’s belief in a leader’s invincibility, despite seeing much of their exceptionalism and protection stripped away, reveals one of the larger reasons behind the failure of the UK and US to tame Covid-19.
We’ve clung onto a belief in something that is simply no longer there. As a democratic state, as a member of the G8 western order, we believed those ideals alone would safeguard us. Yet as the world has adopted the same policy response — lockdown — it has shown the ideological divide between authoritarianism and democracy to be irrelevant, at least for now. All that presently matters is the crude power and infrastructure of states: to implement lockdown and roll out mass testing. No ideology, no matter how noble or important, can achieve that.
The story of our respective leaders is also one about our states. Covid-19 has revealed the paradox in our political settlement. The impossible tension between exceptionalism and the debasement of our leaders.
The public want to see control and strength from the top. Trump may believe as he faces November’s election, that the dramatic removal of his mask, and the helicopter ride back to the White House, will help emanate his exceptionalism. But for a public well aware of the risks of the virus, it merely looked rudderless and foolish. His contraction of the disease has undermined that need and hope in a leader’s exceptionalism.
The shocked face of the President and the doubt in his reply to being well — ‘I think’ — will be what the American public remembers. Trump believed that he was above the daily toil of the disease. He wasn’t.
For the rest of us, Boris and Trump’s succumbing to the virus reveals the contradictions abounding in the position of our leaders, as well as the weaknesses within our respective countries.