Why you should care
Because America’s long battle with “tyrannophobia” didn’t begin with Donald Trump.
“I’m not a king,” President Barack Obama declared in late 2014 as prominent Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz, decried him as a “monarch” when he announced his plans to order U.S. law enforcement to halt deportations for some illegal immigrants.
America has a long tradition of labeling its chief executives monarchs or decrying the overreach of an “imperial presidency.” And, typically, in an election year, a challenger from the opposing party runs as the antidote to that overreach, promising to renew the integrity of the White House, close Guantanamo or do whatever is perceived by the public as necessary to restore power to where it belongs.
Trump is not the first presidential contender to sit astride — or exploit — such complicated, and often contradictory, forces.
One of the many things that make the phenomenon of Donald Trump so fascinating is that the voters most agitated by the “imperial” Obama presidency are turning to a challenger who is such an openly authoritarian figure — a quasi emperor in waiting, if you will. Indeed, much of what many Trump supporters admire about their candidate is exactly what they decry about Obama: a constitution-thwarting authoritarian with celebrity appeal willing to take unilateral executive actions to pursue his vision of a better America. Is this mere partisanship? Expediency? Hypocrisy? Or just the latest iteration of America’s complicated love-hate relationship with the massive amount of power afforded to those seeking its highest office?
Whether or not you agree with the recent research suggesting that Trump is playing the best among Americans with “authoritarian” or “populist” inclinations, it’s clear that the vast majority of his supporters agree that “making America great again” means entrusting a great deal of concentrated power to Trump both to shake up elite insiders and to shield the country from destructive outsiders. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, 84 percent of Trump supporters — compared to 53 percent of all voters — agreed that the U.S. needs a leader “who is willing to say or do anything to solve America’s problems.” Trump’s relatively high numbers among Tea Party conservatives, who have been critical of Obama’s “imperial” actions but supportive of Trump’s authoritarian overtures, also suggests that he is drawing supporters more heavily from a strain of right-wing populism than libertarianism.
Trump is not the first presidential contender to sit astride — or exploit — such complicated, and often contradictory, forces. Take Andrew Jackson, a gritty soldier, horseman and quintessential outsider elected to the presidency in 1828 to take power back from Washington elites. But far from decentralizing authority, Jackson dramatically increased the power of the presidency and came to be depicted as the tyrannical “King Andrew” in political cartoons of the time. “I don’t think that this is just partisan,” Brian Balogh, a political historian at the University of Virginia, says of such countervailing forces and figures. “I think that it is American.” He also points to how Jefferson both restored limited government in 1800, before he used questionable constitutional authority to make the Louisiana Purchase, and how Reagan vastly increased the size of the U.S. military while promising to reduce the size of government.
Balogh and his fellow political history gurus on the radio show BackStory With the American History Guys call the innate American distrust of strongmen “tyrannophobia,” and it really goes back to the founding of the republic in opposition to King George III’s authoritarian governance. But there is another strand, what you might call “tyrannophilia,” that accompanies this tendency, beginning with the embrace of another strongman named George, who rose to become the young nation’s first democratic equivalent of a king.
Indeed, when it comes to their executive branch, Americans appear to have often wanted it both ways, desirous of both a strong president who will protect them and of the liberty required to be protected from that executive power. And polls today continue to show that, at the same time Americans’ faith in their political leaders declines, they by and large support the programs that the government runs: “Keep government out of my Medicare,” as the famous Tea Party signs read.
Balogh says such sentiments are understandable in a country with such a large and diffuse populist base. “Precisely because the majority of those that make up a populist base are not well connected, and because they are critical of existing government arrangements,” he tells OZY, “they necessarily rely on a strong leader to break through the existing array of governing interests.”
Does the prospect of a King Donald breaking through such existing establishment interests represent an “extinction-level event” when it comes to American democracy and executive power, as Andrew Sullivan put it recently in New York magazine? Or might we someday look back at the Trump phenomenon as just another manifestation of a long-running, but manageable, case of American political schizophrenia?