The Century of the Postheroic Presidency
Bill Clinton started the trend. By 2016 voters had given up on high standards in the White House.
When we think about current history we tend to be expecting or predicting something as opposed to experiencing something. But what we need to understand now is that the 21st century isn’t new. It still feels new, but it isn’t. We are entering its third decade. We have been waiting for the century to take its shape and fully become itself, but it’s already doing that.
The 20th century was shaped by the events of 1914-19, the Great War and Versailles. The past two decades have been shaping the 21st.
If we limit ourselves to domestic politics it’s been a time of big change with big implications.
Both parties have been overthrowing the elites and establishments that reigned for at least half a century. In doing so, both parties are changing their essential natures. In both cases the rebellion is driven largely by a bottom-line bitterness: You didn’t care about us, and now you will be gone.
Among Democrats it is the rising left, the progressives, kicking away from the old Clintonian moderates, from old party ways and identifications. They hate Clintonism almost more than they hate conservatism. And they are hated back. In a recent conversation with a politician who was a high official in the Clinton administration, I asked: When you go talk to progressives about your differences, how does that conversation go? “I don’t speak to them,” he shot back. The new New Left — we have to find a better name — is closer to socialism or proudly socialistic. What they feel for the old party establishment: “Thanks for standing up for the little guy while your trade deals made you and your friends rich.” “Thanks for creating a tax system in which you guys become billionaires while everyone else sank.”
The left-wing millennials will rise because the young always do. It’s tempting to compare the rise of the left in the party now with the 1970s and the rise of the old New Left. Boomer leftists then were mad at America over the war, and some of them had read Marx for the first time. But they loved America, and they went on to show that love as the workhorses they were — the first to put the lights on in the office or the institution in the morning, the last to put them off at night.
The rising millennial left seems to love high abstractions — economic justice, global movements for change. But they weren’t raised in a patriotic age, they weren’t taught what in America is admirable, even noble. Do they love America? Do they love this thing we have and are part of in the same, moist-eyed way Americans have in the past? It’s unclear. But if they don’t, when they triumph we’re in trouble.
On the Republican side the rise of Donald Trump revealed the new party to itself. It is a big-government, antiwar, populist party that is conservative-leaning in its social policy. Any card-carrying Trump supporter will immediately say, after lauding the economy, that he has delivered on the courts and has aligned his administration, for all his personal New Yorkiness and indifference to social issues, with those who think conservatively.
Republicans in 2016 were to the right of party leaders, elders and professionals on essential issues — immigration, political correctness, the LGBTQ regime and the arguments it spurred in the town council about bathroom policies, and in schools over such questions as, “Are we still allowed in sports to have a girls team composed of biological girls and a boy’s team composed of biological boys? Will we be sued?”
They knew that on these questions and others the party’s establishments didn’t really care about their views or share them.
When Republicans rebel against the status quo, it’s a powerful thing. They produced in their 2016 rebellion something new: They changed the nature of the presidency itself. The pushing back against elites entailed a pushing against standards. It’s always possible a coming presidential election will look like a snap-back to the old days, a senator versus a governor, one experienced political professional against another. But we will never really go back to the old days. Anyone can become president now, anyone big and colorful and in line with prevailing public sentiment.
We have entered the age of the postheroic presidency. Certain low ways are forgiven, certain rough ways now established. Americans once asked a lot of their presidents. They had to be people not only of high competence and solid, sober backgrounds, but high character. In modern presidencies you can trace a line from, say, Harry S. Truman, who had it in abundance, to Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, who also did.
But the heroic conception of the presidency is over. Bill Clinton and his embarrassments damaged it. Two unwon wars and the great recession killed it. “If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor” buried it. When you deliberately lie like that, you are declaring you have no respect for the people. And the people noticed.
They would like to have someone admirable in the job, someone whose virtues move them, but they’ve decided it’s not necessary. They think: Just keep the economy growing, don’t start any new wars, and push back against the social-issues maximalists if you can.
In the last cycle we spoke of shy Trump voters — those who didn’t want to get in an argument over supporting him. I suspect this cycle we’ll call them closeted Trump voters — those who don’t want to be associated with the postheroic moment, who disapprove of it, but see no realistic alternative.
In time we’ll see you lose something when you go postheroic. Colorful characters will make things more divided, not less. They’ll entertain but not ennoble. And the world will think less of us — America has become a clownish, unserious country with clownish, unserious leaders — which will have an impact on our ability to influence events.
I close with another entity of American life that should be worried about seeming like it doesn’t care about its own country. It is what used to be called big business.
America has always been in love with the idea of success. It’s rewarded the creation of wealth, made household saints of the richest men in the world. We were proud they lived here.
But big business, especially big tech executives and bankers, should be thinking: In this century they’re coming at you left and right.
The left used to say, “You didn’t build that,” while the right said, “You did.” But now there’s a convergence, with both sides starting to think: This country made you. It made the roads you traveled; it made the expensive peace in which your imagination flourished; it created the whole world of arrangements that let you become rich.
You owe us something for that. You owe us your loyalty. And if you allow us to discern — and in this century you have been busy allowing us! — that you do not really care about America, that your first loyalty isn’t to us but to “the world” or “global markets,” then we will come down on you hard.
It isn’t only parties that can be broken up in this century, the one that isn’t coming but is here.
Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.
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