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.
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.