It’s Time to End the Idolatry of the American Presidency
The first outfit I can ever remember wearing was a red and white checkered dress. I was about the height of an end table, and the outfit’s adorableness was backed up by shiny black patent leather shoes and folded over white socks. Those were the days of E.T., Pong, and pet rocks, to put a pin in that moment of space and time. The dress was abundantly cute on a curly-headed a three year old girl and drew its share of “Awws how adorable’’s, but it’s real virtuosity lay sneakily in a little zippered heart-shaped pocket on the chest. “What’s behind the zipper?” an admiring passersby would ask innocently, to which I would slyly respond, “Unzip it and see.” The victim of my game would smile quizzically and unzip the little pocket, which revealed these words: When I grow up, I’m going to be President.
The reveal was invariably met with a surprised “Oh!”, followed very occasionally by the charitable “Well, someday you just might, young lady! Good luck!” For me, the shock value was the real currency of that dress. I learned at that very young age how great it feels to give people the ol’ switcheroo.
Becoming President someday, after all, was the ultimate prize. It was like the cool of being an astronaut but also with nuclear bombs. Like being the Pope but also free to have weird hobbies and swear and get married and play the saxophone on Saturday Night Live and go to fun sounding places like Camp David.
In sum, the winningest thing that could happen to a mere mortal.
Only a few dozen men (and still, nary a woman) had accomplished this goal in our nation’s history, so clearly, they had to be blessed with brains, luck, certain genitalia, and circumstance to have successfully run the most challenging of gauntlets this country could muster.
Models of superiority.
You know when they carve your face into a mountain, you’ve made it.
Even in the next few dozen years that followed when I could long no longer fit into that dress and would certainly never encourage or tolerate any strangers unzipping anything on my chest, I continued to buy in to the narrative that our President was President because he had passed the decisive test of our nation, being weighed and measured and found to be worthy of the helm. No one passed that test unless they deserved to be there, and being there meant they had bested assessments of character, intellect, compassion, philanthropy, history, economics, law, finance, military tactics, speechmaking, and usually had a dog.
I knew they were a good person who strove for excellence, even if I didn’t agree with all their politics. Those two realities could coexist.
You probably can guess where this is going.
Even in the early hours of November 8th 2016, I didn’t believe that Trump could pass the gauntlet of challenges that our country had in place to protect the Oval Office from the unworthy. Rather like those unfortunate blokes in Indiana Jones and Last Crusade who attempted to reach the Holy Grail in the cave and invariably had their heads removed by hidden blade or were on the receiving end of a poison dart, I expected Trump to end the day as a pile of ash or squashed flat under a massive boulder.
America chooses good men. Smart men. Men who read and care and can spell and have dogs. Right?
Spoiler alert, this little girl didn’t grow up to be President. She did get as far as becoming a Political Science major and the Fire Marshal of her dorm (an elected position, mind you), but then her interests drifted to other pursuits.
And now, at 49 years old with still no government experience, it’s obviously too late for me.
Or is it?
Trump was 70 years old when he was inaugurated. That gives me 21 years to still get my shit together, and by shit, that’s exactly what I mean.
I have plenty of time to bankrupt a few dozen businesses and convince my dad to give me a million dollar ‘loan’. I have oodles of time to grab some pussies and get married a few more times and hire porn stars to sleep with me. I have 21 whole years to not read any books or have a government job. And in those 21 years, there will be up to five other presidents to mock and question their citizenship and rile up a base of similarly bookless comrades who also love Putin.
I’m realizing that now, anyone can be President.
There is no gauntlet. There are no tests. Character is no longer on the multiple-choice exam. Also gone are the history, economics, philanthropy, compassion, law, and military tactics sections. You do not need to bring a #2 pencil or goldfish crackers for the 5-minute break.
You don’t even need a dog.
It took me a while to finally accept this new reality, and I often find myself still in the denial phase, but I posit that it’s time for all of us redefine what the Presidency is.
It’s not the highest prize given to the most worthy. It is now the post of the loudest snake oil salesmen who sabotaged the test like Captain Kirk in the Kobayashi Maru. When everything is made up and the points don’t matter. A game played by the smarmy guy on TV. That’s it.
Perhaps this is a good thing. In my naivete of youth, I never knew or considered all the sins and flaws of our Presidents past when I looked at their plaster busts, many of which were egregious and downright murderous. Just as the faces of four of them defaced the holy mountain of The Six Grandfathers, now known as Mt. Rushmore, many of our presidents have cracks showing in their busts in the form of racist policies, reckless warring, and assaults on civil rights of our citizens.
Never before, though, has a President so unabashedly bragged about their own ugliness and shortcomings and how they cheated the game, and used it deliberately to divide us.
Trump sidestepped the gauntlet and then set it on fire.
I don’t think it can be rebuilt. And maybe it shouldn’t.
Much like the Israelites were punished for idol worshiping the golden calf in the desert, perhaps we also needed to learn this the hard way.
No man is a god among men. No man deserves our worship.
We should be cautious about making pilgrimages to worship faces carved into mountains.
What’s with this urge to idolize, anyway? Why the fascination with celebrity, be it altruistic or notorious? Why are we compelled to hitch our wagons to a particular horse?
I’m no cultural anthropologist, but I do carry a takeaway from my Communications 101 class I took as a Freshman in UCLA back in 1989 that has proven to have surprising staying power, and that is an explanation to why humans engage in stereotyping others: the world is so big and overwhelming that we need to compartmentalize folks into groups so our primitive minds aren’t burdened with assessing each person we meet from scratch to determine if they are a threat. We parse the world up into clunky and misshapen pods of people that might share some qualities in common, which saves our feeble brains the exhausting task of sizing up everyone individually. I think in the blueprint stage of our brain development, we were meant to quickly abandon these shortcuts and give each person we meet a chance once our brains have calmed down at the new encounter and we’ve determined the new person isn’t going to bonk us over the head and steal our fire. The problem, though, has become that folks are proving quite reluctant to quickly abandon these stereotypes as intended, and quite contrarily, cling to them with ferocity, because we are at heart, scaredy cats.
Celebrities, on the other hand, have somehow cracked the system. They managed to skirt being stereotyped into an easily digestible and non-threatening group and become glitzy outliers, dodging pod membership entirely. With their fame and notoriety, they have earned the honor of individual assessment and acknowledgement of their accomplishments. In a word, they won. And everyone wants to be associated with a winner. So we express our adulation of them as if to say, I’m with Him, the association of which might reap some tangible or intangible benefit. (Not to say that celebrities are beyond reproach and criticism — they certainly sustain an inordinate amount of scrutiny for the minutia of daily operations as a human for everything from latte choice to daring to exit the home without being fully groomed — but that scrutiny and judgement is under a green tinged veil of admiration and jealousy.)
This primal and unconscious urge to latch on to a winner becomes part of our own sense of survival and identity, so out of necessity, we turn a blind eye to anything that might jeopardize this relationship.
We ignore things like bad policies and boasting about sexual assault, because to acknowledge them means we were wrong. My guy is not a winner. My instincts were wrong. I am a bad judge of character and navigate the world poorly. It’s a wonder I’m still alive.
We don’t like it when our life rafts spring a leak.
I submit that our fabricated need for life rafts is actually sinking the ship.
Celebrity is the hallmark of a hierarchical society — one which endows higher status onto to some and by necessity, lowers others. The President, I thought, was supposed to be a public servant — not a game show host with golden toilets and a penchant for revenge. It would seem that the experiment of having a celebrity as President, a job that is supposed to be about raising everyone up, is failing. And how could it not? Did we really expect a man who spent his entire life trying to show the world he’s better than the rest of us to get elected and suddenly about face into a champion of others?
It’s really not his fault. We elected the executioner to run the bake sale and then wonder why all the cookies are burnt.
Kids growing up right now have a very different impression of the American Presidency than I did back in the time of that red and white checkered dress. Their president is a not a model of superiority. He’s a mutton mouthed game show host who stares at eclipses, can’t spell, and thinks Frederick Douglass is still alive.
Not exactly like being an astronaut or the Pope.
If I were that little girl today, in that same red and white checkered dress, and a kindly passerby asked me what’s behind the zipper and I permitted them to look, they’d see When I grow up, I’m going to be President, and would likely say,
Why not? Clearly anyone can.
So, in some back asswards bizarro world fashion, I’m willing to grant Trump this one win and contend that he has done the world a favor, completely unintentionally.
Just as we dismantle Confederate statues for no longer representing what we think is good about this country, Trump is helping us dismantle the cult of celebrity around the post of the Presidency. Those 45 men really are just guys — flawed and making this up as they go like the rest of us.
Perhaps, as we learn to let go of our need for idols and saviors, we can better focus on everyone around us. And who knows — maybe someday in the future, ‘stereotyping’ will no longer be covered in the field of Communications, but in American History.