David Harsanyi / December 25, 2015

Admit It. You Just Want Your Own Dictator

This incessant clamoring by voters and punditry for better “leaders” and more “leadership” is one of the most unsavory, dangerous and un-American tendencies in political discourse. When Donald Trump was asked last week by Joe Scarborough what he made of an endorsement from Vladimir Putin — a thug who’s probably murdered journalists and political opponents and more — the GOP presidential front-runner responded, “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” Then he offered an incredibly dumb moral equivalency about how the United States also does “plenty of killing.”

This incessant clamoring by voters and punditry for better “leaders” and more “leadership” is one of the most unsavory, dangerous and un-American tendencies in political discourse.

When Donald Trump was asked last week by Joe Scarborough what he made of an endorsement from Vladimir Putin — a thug who’s probably murdered journalists and political opponents and more — the GOP presidential front-runner responded, “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” Then he offered an incredibly dumb moral equivalency about how the United States also does “plenty of killing.”

There was plenty of well-earned criticism directed at Trump’s comments. Most commenters were offended not because the Russians are being aggressively “led,” mind you, but because Putin does things we don’t approve of. Perhaps if the Russian strongman used his muscle to tackle global warming as the Chinese Communists are pretending to do, The New York Times’ editorial page would praise him for his forethought and willingness to act. If Putin banned protests aimed at abortion clinics instead of Pussy Riot, how many progressives would cheer him?

In contemporary American parlance — and maybe it’s always been this way — a “leader” typically describes someone who will aggressively push your preferred policies. How much do Americans really care about what this aggressiveness entails?

Trump’s entire case, for instance, is propelled by the notion that a single (self-identified) competent, a strong-willed president, without any perceptible deference to the foundational ideals of the nation, will be able to smash any cultural or political obstacles standing in the way of making America Great Again.

But this is certainly not the first time we’ve seen voters adopt a cultish reverence for a strong-willed presidential candidate without any perceptible deference to the foundational ideals of the country whose personal charisma was supposed to shatter obstacles standing in the way of making America great again. Many of the same people anxious about the authoritarian overtones of Trump’s appeal were unconcerned about the intense adulation that adoring crowds showered on Barack Obama in 2008, though the spectacle featured similarly troubling signs — the iconography, the messianic messaging and the implausible promises of government-produced comfort and safety. Just as President Trump fans will judge every person on how nice or mean he or she is to Trump, so, too, those rooting against Obama were immediately branded unpatriotic or racist.

Obama’s inevitable failure to live up to the hype has had many repercussions — and none of them healthy.

One: Liberal hypocrites, who only a few years ago were lamenting how W.‘s abuses had destroyed the republic, now justify Obama’s numerous executive overreaches because they correspond with liberal political aims. Obama’s argument — and, thus, the contention of his fans — seems to pivot on the notion that the president has a moral imperative to act on his favored policies because the lawmaking branch of government refuses to do so. That is weird. This reasoning will almost certainly be modus operandi for presidents unable to push through their own agendas — which, considering where the country is headed, will be every president.

Two: Other liberals (and maybe many of the same ones) argue that Obama hasn’t done enough with his power — that the president is unwilling to lead — even if there are procedural or constitutional barriers for him to achieve what they demand. Too many Americans seem to believe that presidents can make laws if they fight hard enough, and these people now view checks and balances as antiquated and unnecessary impediments to progress.

Three: Many onetime small-government conservatives, frustrated with the president’s success and the impotence and corruption of their party (often a legitimate complaint but often an overestimation of what politicians can accomplish), are interested in finding their own Obama — or what they imagine Obama is, which is to say, a dictator.

Not that this fetishizing of leadership is confined to the progressive left or the conservative right. In fact, more than anyone in American discourse, the self-styled moderate pundit loves to talk about leadership. It would be a full-time job cataloging how often a person will read about the nation’s dearth of genuine leadership — which is, in essence, a call to ignore the democratic forces that make truly free governing messy and uncomfortable. There are entire conferences teeming with D.C. technocrats trying to figure out how proles can be led to preferred outcomes and decisions. The moderates seem to believe that organic disagreements can be smoothed over by a smart speech or two, and they always mythologize about the political leadership of the past.

For many, it’s always the worst of times and we’re always in need of the greatest of leaders. It’s worth mentioning that Putin was democratically elected, with polls showing his approval rating usually somewhere in the 80s. Unity! Regrettably, sometimes I think that’s how unity would look here, as well. We, on the other hand, have disparate forces with an array of concerns, outlooks and conflicting worldviews. This is why we might be thankful that federalism and individual freedom, often scoffed at, are at the heart of the American founding.

“There is danger from all men,” wrote John Adams in what may be the most genuinely conservative of all positions. Now, obviously, you have to have a certain skill set to bring people to some consensus, to make decisions about war and to administrate such a massive body as our government. But the president is not your savior. A person empowered to make everything great also has the power to make everything horrible. If a president alone can transform America, then something has gone terribly wrong with the system.

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