The Impulse to Want a Strong Man

And the intuition that things aren't really working.

Weirdly enough, I was going to write a post about the Politico piece that James Joyner already commented upon a couple of weeks ago, Trouble with tha God. Indeed, I started writing this post before he posted his and then I paused my completion thereof (far longer than intended!). I initially read the piece as I was curious as to what angle it was going to take in terms of the Black vote, Black media, and Biden (and because I had a vague recollection of Charlamagne and Biden having a media moment back in 2020.

But, really, none of that ended up being what really struck me upon reading the piece. Instead, it highlighted to me the ways in which the public tends to process politics and government and why I would argue there is general discontent with American governance. It additionally intersects with thoughts about why Trump still gets support even from non-MAGA types.

Note, please, that I am not trying to explain all of Trump’s voters.* I am commenting on, in part at least, why we see the national head-to-head polls being as close as they are at the moment and why we see things like the following USAT headline, Black, Hispanic and young voters abandon Biden, new poll shows. Or why someone like Charlamagne Tha God might speak about Trump as he did (critically, yes, but also with some admiration).

Fundamentally I would hypothesize (and if I had the resources, I would explore this hypothesis) that a major reason people feel discontent in the US is because the government clearly does not produce what the voters want. There is a deficit of actual representation, and this causes frustration and disillusionment. And so, even people who might not otherwise support Trump will vote for him because when systems appear not to work (or, indeed, when they don’t work) the appeal of the strong man is great.

Two passages from the Politico piece stood out to me in this regard (emphases mine).

First, the following chunk.

“It’s almost like Democrats are doing this purity test. America is not pure. The people of America are not pure. We’re flawed,” he said. “I’m not looking for my politicians to be pure, … I’m looking for my politicians to be effective.”

[…]

Trump relentlessly touted — or, in some cases, gave himself outsized credit for — policies he enacted as president. He signed the First Step Act into law, which brought modest reforms to the federal criminal justice system. He pardoned rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black. And he sent stimulus checks, or what a lot of folks commonly refer to as “stimmies,” during the first year of the pandemic.

“Imagine you felt like you’ve never gotten anything from the government, ever. And you don’t know how politics work, you just know you just got this check in the mail, with [Trump’s] name on it,” Charlamagne said. “You will feel like he did something.”

Biden sent checks too. But Charlamagne argues that he failed to play it up the way his predecessor did.

I think this desire for effectiveness (or, more accurately, perceived effectiveness) is a major reason that Trump can attract voters who might otherwise find his personality and politics odious (such as polling that shows Black voters who would consider supporting Trump). Trump, like many authoritarian politicians, creates a persona of action. It is the mythology that was built on The Apprentice and is inherent in his brand-driven ethos that included putting his name on everything.*

I don’t even think most people, including Charlamagne, think about what it means to be an effective president or even an effective politician. They just want results (and, of course, what those results might be will vary from person to person).

There also seems to be a weird nostalgia about the pre-COVID years that seems to be in play (which weirdly ignores who was in the White House when COVID hit and the poor response that ensued).

The second passage was the following.

The last time he interviewed [Vice President Harris], in December 2021, he pointedly asked on his now-canceled Comedy Central program “Tha God’s Honest Truth” about negotiations over what ultimately became the Inflation Reduction Act: “Who is the real president of this country, is it Joe Manchin or Joe Biden, madam vice president?”

It is incredibly easy to ask why Joe Manchin from West Virginia seems to have more power than the President of the United States. It is easy to wonder aloud as to why the allegedly Most Powerful Man in the World can’t get 1/100th of the Senate to cooperate. It takes a lot more time to explain why the core problem is the disproportionate and unrepresentative the Senate is, let alone the reasons why separation of powers makes the president a lot less powerful in legislating than would seem to be the case to the casual observer.

The public intuitively understands that something is wrong when legislation that would pass if majority sentiment and democratic incentives really ruled the process fails to become law. When it all seems to boil down to one dude who is not at all representative of the national position, it is doubly frustrating. This is all exacerbated by a simplistic political view that it all boils down to the president. I mean, he’s the leader, right?

I mean, if people as a general matter really understood the power (and limitations) of the presidency, things like the following wouldn’t work.

Photo by SLT

But, there are people who really believe that the president has substantial powers over gas prices and likewise over inflation. Of course, were that the case, we would always have low inflation and low gas prices, or, at least, successful presidents would be able to fix these issues; but anyone who knows even a little bit about how things actually work knows better. And, really, even the people who claim that the president has such powers know better as well since their beliefs in the presidency’s magical powers only matter when they can use them to criticize. In other words, they only care about the president’s power over gas prices when prices are high. Should they come down when a president they don’t like is in office, the magic is less real all of a sudden.

Back to efficacy, I will remind everyone that it is not hard to forward the simplistic message that Trump got Roe overturned, which is a huge plus for a substantial number of Republican voters. Further, the Court is firmly conservative because of Trump appointees. Forget the complex reality that led to those outcomes, it is not at all hard for the message to be he got it done.

He also passed tax cuts in his first two years in office. Never mind that the main result of that legislation that directly affects most voters is that the withholding form has gotten weirder, that’s probably the IRS’s fault. But did you hear that Trump cut taxes?

Ultimately, I think that the vast majority of Americans feel (and I use that word specifically) the fact that the federal government is dysfunctional and does not represent what the public wants. But, of course, understanding why is the hard part. And since the one office they pay attention to is the presidency, they expect the president to fix things. Reducing politics to one person increases the chances that authoritarian politicians will be successful.

Generally, the more the public is frustrated, the more the tendency to want a strong man emerges. In many ways this is the essence of populism: that “the people” are upset with “the elites” and only a specific leader can cut through the mess and fix it. (Scare quotes because the specific definition of the people and the elites in this context are often vague and/or linked to the specific populist movement).

As such, it is not as hard to understand as one might like it to be that there is some level of willingness to vote for Trump. He, at least, promises to do things. That he can’t do them is beside the point. Biden, who certainly makes a fair share of grandiose promises himself, at least limits himself to things that are at least theoretically possible (until a single swing vote in the Senate blocks him and makes him look weak).

The fact that Trump even appears to be willing to break the system to “get things done” actually is appealing to many. This is doubly true for persons already convinced things are already broken (which, again, is going to be interpreted differently by different people).

If you are a person who understands politics, you know that Trump is full of beans on almost all of his claims, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of frustrated people out there primed for authoritarian promises about being able to get things done.

The thing about the observations and positions of Charlamagne is that they underscore a general lack of understanding of what the president can (and can’t do), of how the Senate (indeed, Congress) works, and of what realistic politics looks like. And that is also why we end up with a Biden-Trump race being closer than one might expect (at least in part)–especially when there are only two choices.***


*In truth, the reasons are legion and have to start with the fact that we only have two viable choices, which forces people to pick a side and then rationalize the choice.

** If you have never read it, I would recommend the following 2018 piece from The New Yorker: How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success.

***A reminder that I am speaking here about the national polling that assumes Biden and Trump are the nominees, not about why Trump is winning the GOP nomination process, which is its own discussion.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Political Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Chip Daniels says:

    I think a lot of us liberals forget that there is some percentage of people in every demographic- racial, wealth, religious- who want a Strong Man On Horseback who will just come in and like Kevin Kline in the movie Dave, just solve all the thorny problems of governance in an afternoon of sitting down with his accountant.

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  2. JKB says:

    All my Democrat-aligned news sources have told me Trump will be a dictator “from day one”. Now you tell me presidents don’t have that kind of power.

    Especially when the senior leadership of the military has proclaimed they will not obey orders from Trump or would warn their Chinese “counterpart if young American men and women were being ordered into harms way.

    The FBI and DOJ must surely going MAGA if they would be delighted to be excellent associates during a Trump administration. Maybe they should search their internal network for keywords such as “Trump” or “MAGA” like they had banks do.

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  3. Kylopod says:

    @JKB:

    All my Democrat-aligned news sources have told me Trump will be a dictator “from day one”.

    Trump stated explicitly that he would be dictator on day one, but he claimed he would stop being dictator thereafter, which is very reassuring.

    “We love this guy,” Trump said of Hannity. “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ I said: ‘No, no, no, other than day one. We’re closing the border, and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.’”

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  4. @JKB:

    Now you tell me presidents don’t have that kind of power.

    Not if they stay within the bounds of normal governance.

    If, however, they are willing to wantonly abuse power, which is what he has promised, then we have a serious problem.

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  5. gVOR10 says:

    you know that Trump is full of beans

    That seems dated phrasing. It’s your blog. You can say “shit” if you want to.

    One might note Jamie Dimon, who ought to have the good taste to keep his mouth shut, recently raised similar criticisms. I have commented often that the MAGA types have legit concerns. Our economic elites and “the Blob” have failed mightily. The MAGA, however, are unwittingly supporting those same economic elites.

    I mostly agree with you, James, but with two qualifiers. First, the country is actually doing pretty well. The level of discontent is largely driven by decades of FOX/GOP propaganda. Second, there seems to always be a level of discontent that can be exploited. Perhaps it’s only rarely we get an individual like Trump, or Hitler, or Huey Long who combines the pragmatic political skills to pull off this sort of faux populism along with the right set of psychoses to want to.

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  6. Chip Daniels says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    As we are seeing right now with the arguments being made by Trumps attorneys regarding immunity, with 218/51/5, a president has, quite literally, dictatorial power.

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  7. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    Dr. T, thanks for a clear synopsis of exactly how far down the greased log flume we are, and why we’re incapable of getting off.

    @JKB:

    You have ” Democrat-aligned news sources?” From sometime in this century? Color me astounded.

    ETA – JKB, I’d recommend actually reading something other than thrice-used tea leaves, but it’d be a waste of my time. You seem to want a strong man leader, and you’re convinced that DJT was, is (& forever will be), him.

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  8. @Chip Daniels: Yup.

    And clearly, a party that is unwilling to check him.

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  9. Bill Jempty says:

    @Chip Daniels:

    Kevin Kline in the movie Dave

    Dear Wife and I watched Dave one night in June 1994. Afterwards we turned off the television. It wasn’t till the next morning that we learned about the O.J. Simpson chase.

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  10. CSK says:

    One has to be beyond deluded to believe Trump is strong. He’s a weakling who blusters and hurls juvenile insults. This is not strength. Far from it.

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  11. Kylopod says:

    @CSK: All so-called strongmen are pathetic weaklings. It’s one of the central features of the type.

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  12. DK says:

    @JKB:

    All my Democrat-aligned news sources have told me Trump will be a dictator “from day one”.

    As you know, it was Trump himself who said he’d be dictator on day one. But we know why Republicans have to lie about that.

    One, Trump is a patholgical liar, so of course he is supported by liars.

    Two, Trump’s unpatriotic enablers can’t defend his unhinged, fascist rhetoric.

    Then again, I can understand why one might call Trump Democrat-aligned, given that national disgust with Trump keeps helping Democrats win elections.

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  13. steve says:

    From my POV it seems like the strongman has always appealed to conservatives, regardless of how well off we are. To be sure they reinforce that by emphasizing, often lying, about issues like crime and immigration ie fear of the other.

    Steve

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  14. dazedandconfused says:

    @CSK:

    Political truth is not the same as real truth. With political truth perception is a reality.

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  15. Cheryl Rofer says:

    it is not hard to forward the simplistic message that Trump got Roe overturned

    And, as you noted, this matters in a good way to his supporters.

    But the Democrats can just as easily forward this message, and there are more people who are angry about it than the Trumpies who will love it.

    Edit: I know this is a bit OT from your main point, but it will also enhance the message that a strongman is NOT what we want for a president.

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  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And so, even people who might not otherwise support Trump will vote for him because when systems appear not to work (or, indeed, when they don’t work) the appeal of the strong man is great.

    I see this fundamentally different. Those who want a strong man leader feel themselves to be weak and insignificant*, the whole world is lined up against them so they essentially want someone who will win their battles for them.

    *ftr, in the larger picture I know I am insignificant, (who isn’t?) but over the years I have had to fight way too many battles on my own without any, or at least very little help.

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  17. CSK says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    Sadly, that’s very true.

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  18. Gustopher says:

    I get wanting a strongman. I don’t understand why anyone thinks Trump is a strong man.

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  19. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:

    Because he’s a loudmouthed churl.

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  20. dazedandconfused says:

    The key ingredient is messing with the faith people have in the system. To that end Bannon’s flood-the-zone tactics have intrinsic advantages – It’s nearly always easier to tear things apart than it is to build them and lies can circle the world before the truth can get it’s shoes on.

    Create chaos and them master the chaos, sez Bannon, and even though the perps are in the courts it’s working pretty well.

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  21. Scott F. says:

    The fact that Trump even appears to be willing to break the system to “get things done” actually is appealing to many. This is doubly true for persons already convinced things are already broken (which, again, is going to be interpreted differently by different people).

    This is why the first job of the wannabe strong man’s party is to undermine the press. If people are to be comfortable under the heel, then the opposition can’t merely be wrongly standing against things getting done, but they have to be preventing good things from happening for evil reasons.

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  22. Ken_L says:

    Unfortunately, it’s time to confront the unpalatable possibility that representative democracy cannot – or can no longer, depending on one’s views about history – deliver effective governance in a nation as large and diverse as the United States. The increasingly bold defiance of federal courts and federal government directives by some red states is surely a sign that the constitutional order is fraying. I’m not sure any system could do it, but since a kind of representative democracy is what exists at the moment, it’s natural that many people are inclined to try something else to see if it works better.

    A rational populace would respond to this development by tinkering with the way representative democracy functions to see if it could be improved, but even that seems impossible to achieve. America faces an insoluble dilemma: just about everyone agrees with the general proposition that the system is dysfunctional, but a majority quickly forms to oppose furiously any specific proposal for incremental change, no matter how small.

    History suggests this kind of chronic dissatisfaction with government often leads to the emergence of new political movements, but there are no signs of this happening in America, for reasons that have been well discussed here. Efforts like No Labels are essentially self-indulgent exercises in nostalgia by people who feel the world has passed them by. They have no serious reform agenda, and no significant public following.

    History also suggests that in the absence of managed change to relieve simmering public resentment, regimes which have lost the public’s confidence will eventually fall to some form of popular uprising, often but not always involving violence. This in turn is often, but not inevitably, followed by the drafting of a new constitution, fresh elections, and an attempt at a new start. I truly believe this is what awaits the US some time this century, but I’m not silly enough to predict when, or how.

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  23. DrDaveT says:

    NPR interviewed Republican primary voters in New Hampshire this morning. One woman said (I am paraphrasing) “I am voting for Trump because everything is so expensive now.”

    I wanted to reach through the radio and shake her, and ask her “What exactly do you think Trump could do, even if he wanted to, to change that?”

    As noted before, the long Republican war on education has finally borne fruit.

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  24. DrDaveT says:

    @Ken_L:

    America faces an insoluble dilemma: just about everyone agrees with the general proposition that the system is dysfunctional, but a majority quickly forms to oppose furiously any specific proposal for incremental change, no matter how small.

    As pollsters continually fail to recognize, people who agree that “the system is dysfunctional” often do not, in fact, agree. At present, half of the country feels that the system is insufficiently representative, and the other half feel that it is overly representative. That is not agreement.

    There is no way to reconcile people who believe that only their flavor of American is a “real” American with those who believe that America is supposed to be for all Americans. Democratic nations where some flavor of nativist actually become a majority suffer horrible fates. We are on the verge of that, thanks to the Electoral College.

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  25. Andy says:

    There are a lot of factors that make the office of the President bigger than it actually is:

    – candidates promising the moon.
    – Congress abdicating its traditional responsibility
    – the nationalization of politics
    – the growth of the administrative state
    – the relative balance of authority on major questions when it comes to federal vs state authority.
    – celebrity culture
    – nationalized media of all types.

    The reality is many people do want their President to be a King – or at least they want their President to have the authority of one for the questions that matter to them. That’s what’s led to the Executive branch power creep over the decades. Each President takes a bite for what his supporters think are justified and expedient reasons. Congress does basically nothing and it’s left to the courts as often the only check on these Executive power grabs.

    When the legislature can’t or won’t legislate, then the shadow legislature that is the administrative state, along with EO’s ends up running the show, all from the Executive branch.

    We need a functioning Congress again.

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  26. JKB says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    How does a President abuse power when those who control the troops, control the armed federal agents, control the prosecutions don’t support that president or their action?

    Are you now claiming that the career federal SES and the flag ranks at the Pentagon are becoming Trump supporters? Well, assuming they don’t put him in prison, or assassinate him, of course.

    DK tells us that Trump said he would be a dictator for day one, then his first point is how Trump is a pathological liar.

    Really, let’s try to use our critical thinking skills and ensure logical consistency of our arguments. Also, judge a risk of Trump being a dictator when most of official and career Washington are ardent opponents of him.

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  27. Jay L Gischer says:

    @JKB: Trump now has a track record of flouting laws and norms. He doesn’t appear to recognize any limits other than the limits that direct application of power can put on him. This is not speculative. It is a long track record. It includes fabricating a “stolen election”. What other big lies is he going to dream up.

    It includes flouting the laws about government documents, and refusing at every turn to return them. It includes storing said documents on the stage of his club. It’s irresponsible, yes. It also demonstrates a habit of ignoring limits placed on him.

    I place very little faith in what he says, and far more on what he’s done, and the pattern of behavior he’s demonstrated over the years.

    He has been able to get supporters and allies into many key positions in government already. Who’s to say he won’t get more?

    Yes, the rhetoric of some is amplified. That’s normal in politics.

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  28. DK says:

    @JKB:

    DK tells us that Trump said he would be a dictator for day one, then his first point is how Trump is a pathological liar.

    Really, let’s try to use our critical thinking skills and ensure logical consistency of our arguments. Also, judge a risk of Trump being a dictator when most of official and career Washington are ardent opponents of him

    Ha. Your gaslighting dishonesty is not refiective of any degree critical thinking.

    It’s true Trump is a patholgical liar. It’s also true Trump said he’d be dictator on day one of his presidency.

    Whether or not he was lying about that, my point stands: you lied in presenting the spectre of a Trump dictatorship as a Democratic invention when the claim came from Trump himself. You know that, you’re just a MAGA simp looking for a way to justify Trump’s dangerous, anti-American rhetoric.

    There’s nothing logically consistent about your blind devotion to someone you yourself admit cannot be trusted and should not be believed.

    The reason the right sees Trump’s lying as a virtue is clear: today’s “conservatives” are similarly allergic to the truth. It’s deplorable. And why Republicans keep losing elections. Keep it up!

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  29. Zachriel says:

    @Kylopod: Trump stated explicitly that he would be dictator on day one

    What do you call a dictator on day one? A dictator.

    @dazedandconfused: Create chaos and them master the chaos, sez Bannon

    Chaos is a ladder.

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