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Presidential Power and the Celebrity-in-Chief

The presidential race was an elaborate, all-consuming show – a grim spectacle from which we could not avert our eyes. Alexis de Tocqueville highlighted this in his depiction of 1830s America, but his words could well apply today:

“Long before the appointed moment arrives, the election becomes the greatest and so to speak sole business preoccupying minds. The entire nation falls into a feverish state; the election is then the daily text of public papers … the object of all thoughts, the sole interest of the present.”

The 2016 election has shown us that the run-up to November 8th was not simply an extended (and obsessive) public debate on the direction of government policy over the following four years; it was a reality TV show.

More Americans than ever tuned in to watch the mud slinging from both sides. The televised debates drew 83 million viewers, the highest ever, with Reagan-Carter coming in second at 80.6 million. These figures, of course, didn’t include those people streaming the debate on social media, as millions more watched online. Moreover, the mainstream media covered the incessant electioneering and televised debates as if they were sporting events, recounting scathing put-downs and cycling ten-second sound bites as if replaying a homerun or a knockout. Even across the pond, here in Britain, the election was the subject of news stories every single day.

Was it always heading this way? To cast our gaze back over just the last few decades might indeed give that impression. I could cite the folkloric John Kennedy-Richard Nixon televised debate, to which many attribute JFK’s victory. Indeed, radio audiences reportedly noticed little difference in performance, but those who watched on their television sets were more favourable to Kennedy.

If the presidential race is a reality show, then the President is certainly a celebrity.

Though Theodore Roosevelt and John Kennedy are prime examples of this, Obama is the most recent. In a political climate that facilitated ex-actor Ronald Reagan forging a hugely successful political career and elevated Arnold Schwarzenegger to the status of governor, it should come as little surprise to see the President appearing on such television shows as Running Wild With Bear Grylls or YOLOing for a BuzzFeed video. Such is Obama’s fame that, before his first year was out, he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and a statue of him had been erected in Indonesia.

We can look to the 19th century English essayist, Walter Bagehot, for a succinct explanation of why politicians increasingly act like celebrities, and why celebrities are successful in politics: The matter of showmanship would be trifling “in a country where people did not care for the outward show of life, where the genius of the people was untheatrical, and they exclusively regarded the substance of things… Who is the showman is not material unless you care about the show.”

This state of affairs is partly our own fault for the way we treat the President, as much as it is about how the President seeks to extent his powers.

President Obama, faced with congressional opposition, harnessed considerable regulatory power to achieve his ends and further control the everyday lives of American citizens. The Obama administration has passed 600 major regulations (those that the Congressional Budget Office categorizes as having a significant social or economic impact), which, according to George Washington University, is 50 percent more than George W. Bush. This is, in part, the result of Obama assuming the role of an almost-messianic figure. He was supposed to be the embodiment of hope and change, upon whom his supporters could pin all their expectations. So, when Republicans in Congress moved to block him, his supporters were more than happy to find ways of bypassing the checks and balances that the different branches of government provide. Obama, revered and celebrified, was thus able to push reforms and swell the state’s authority amidst cheering and praise from his adoring fans. The Obamaphiles had their idol in power, and because of the extreme personality cult that surrounded him (and still does surround him, judging by his admirers eulogizing the end of his term), his fans didn’t mind an expansion of governmental and presidential powers in order to accomplish their goals. Of course, this betrays an arrogance and lack of foresight; the powers you grant to your heroes today will tomorrow be used by your political opponents.

Fortunately, some Obamaphiles are starting to see this now, and I expect more liberals will do so in the coming months.

A cursory glance at Twitter reveals the hysteria over the thought of Trump at the reigns of power. The intense emotional response from the liberal establishment demonstrates their understanding that the President is far too powerful and exerts too strong an influence on government policy. Perhaps this fear of what Trump could do with his newly-won power will be the genesis of a move away from celebrification and personality cults and tribal adherence to political parties. Perhaps it will rekindle in liberals an appreciation of limited government and the separation of powers. Perhaps fear of Trump’s tenure in the White House will lead people to advocate for stronger restraints on presidential and governmental authority.

Or not. The disgruntled Democrats may simply turn to someone more fervent in promoting European socialistic policies and advancing a ‘social justice’ agenda; we might soon witness the rise of a leftist version of Trump. I, however, prefer to see a more optimistic future for the liberty movement.

* James Blagden is a history enthusiast, recent university graduate, and advocate of classical liberalism.

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