The Presidential Hero
Enter George W. Bush the Cowboy, as he often did in public appearances. We saw him staged, the first President to appear this way (and each of his successors has retained this public style), typically striding out onto a great stage,
with a crowd of supporters or soldiers sitting behind him. A huge American flag or patriotic motto typically loomed above them, completing the scene that had been carefully composed for television.
It evoked a bizarre mix of images: a Protestant church with chorus; the Fascist strongman who declared himself a “war president”; and a TV game show master of ceremonies, softening up the crowd with one-liners (queue Trump).
He was attempting to embody the myth of the lone savior, called forth, as always, by the unprovoked attack of pure evil. This ground had been well prepared. Dozens of action/disaster films had culminated in two films – Independence Day (1996) and Air Force One (1997) – in which American presidents personally piloted jet planes, killed villains and saved the entire world. In 2003 Bush’s handlers certainly had this mythic background in mind when they had him (appear to) land a plane on an aircraft carrier and proclaim, “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Nearly fifteen years later, of course, no one can pretend to know what that ongoing “mission” is.
Like each of his predecessors (in a modern pattern initiated by Jimmy Carter), Bush came from an outlying area to wage moral battle against the insiders of the eastern establishment. He was both outsider and a man of the people, playing both the savior of the innocent and an innocent one himself. Like Reagan, he cavorted at his ranch doing physical work. Like Reagan, Bush perfected the act of not appearing to be a consummate politician. Even his malapropisms – “They misunderestimated me” – and Texas drawl (some say they were contrived) worked in his favor: he seemed genuinely inarticulate, just like the rest of us, unlike eloquent patricians like John Kerry. His people wanted John Wayne, not Adlai Stevenson.
When the occasional reporter got past the handlers (and his or her own editors) and pointed out the disconnect between his rhetoric and reality, Bush simply ignored the charge, as if sharing the joke with his fraternity buddies (again, queue Trump). And it was this apparent comfort in the world of pure fantasy that made his lies, like those of Reagan’s, all the more convincing.
Thus Bush combined the image of the lone savior with another one: the unsophisticated country boy – Parcival – who comes to the city, competes with the effete intellectuals and succeeds by tweaking their noses. In America, this pattern goes back at least as far as Davy Crockett. But Bush, of course, was no Indian killer; his famous smirk was the passive-aggressive gesture that adolescents make while enduring Mom’s lectures on proper behavior. Ultimately, with the War on Terror temporarily propping up his poll numbers, perhaps he was so persuasive because, like Reagan, he played himself – a grandiose, uninitiated male, alternating between hero and clown. Queue Trump for the third time.
That so many people could be – and can still be – moved by such patently false displays speaks to our refusal to question the roots of our innocence; our enduring racism; the mythic depths of our longing; and the deep study of these things by politicians, especially the Republicans.
Barack Obama presented a very different brand. He endeavored to embody the archetypal King. And this, of course, is precisely what horrified countless whites and motivated them to tear him down by any means necessary, including attacks on his place of birth and his religion. For a Black man to do this was, in their eyes, to call into question the very basis of their own identities. Trump, of course, could see that.
By 2016, after economic collapse and no recovery, another eight years of war, a black President and a media culture that had succeeded in blurring any distinction between news, politics and pure entertainment, enough of the public was ready for – longed for – another redemption figure who would not even bother to hide the fact that he was an unrepentant sexual predator, crook and con man.
However, he was also a celebrity, and he knew his audience. Trump and his handlers learned well from Reagan and Bush, as well as from American mythology, which prioritizes identity in terms of the racialized Other. Although he couldn’t claim to be a traditional outsider from a western state, he converted the mainstream media in the eyes of a third of the country into the hated insiders that his followers perceived as the source of their misery.
This wasn’t difficult. Southern whites, his primary supporters (imagine Southerners voting for a New Yorker!), have a very long memory that stretched back to the days of Reconstruction when Yankee carpetbaggers, newly enfranchised Blacks and radical reformers had turned their world upside down for a time. In the past twenty years they had laid the groundwork, through voter suppression and gerrymandering, for that to never happen again. For more on this, read my blog, Did the South Win the Civil War?
Trump is an easy target for liberals. But what does it mean that many who condemn him in the media, especially comedians, do so by impugning his masculinity (“small hands”)? Isn’t this style yet another reference to Hero mythology? It’s great theater but it certainly has no effect on Trump’s base; the racial hatred, the insecurity below it and the anger at elites are too strong. And, since most of the criticism leveled against him by the Democrats and the mainstream media comes in the form of “Russiagate,” it also partakes of old, useless mythologies of anti-communism (fear of the external Other) and witch hunts (fear of the internal Other).
It all rolls off Trump’s back, because he and several generations of conservative ideologues before him have conditioned the base to perceive themselves as victims of those same elites. The Paranoid Imagination is not concerned with logic or consistency. It receives much of its nourishment from vicarious – and alternating – identification with both the Hero and his mirror opposite, the victim. Or in more contemporary terms, the winner and the loser. Or the hero and the villain.
Read Part Four here.