“Being president,” former First Lady Michelle Obama has said, “doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.” In this moment, we may also need to acknowledge that presidents also reveal much about who we are.
American presidents do not exist outside the systems or times that produced them. Great presidents—like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and, arguably, Lyndon B. Johnson—have emerged when the nation has risen to meet challenging circumstances. And, granted, most presidents are middling—which tells us something about the quotidian nature of much of political life in the US. But America’s worst presidents demonstrate something essential about what is most broken or troubling in the character of the country and the temper of the times. A dismal or dire US president is a symptom of great problems within society that weaken it or put it in peril.
In this year of a presidential election, we must account for our forty-fifth president because the real challenge before us is not simply to replace a terribly flawed leader, but to understand how to fix a system that produces, promotes, protects, and even values the dangerous toxicity we see daily from our commander-in-chief.
It has been said that one of the most important ingredients for a successful career is wisdom in choosing the right predecessor: if the one who came before was bad enough, the one who comes after is almost certain to look better by comparison. This may be some consolation to whomever is Donald Trump’s successor—it certainly worked to the advantage of George Washington.
As much as the United States was founded on ideals, it was also established in response to the manifold failings of King George III. The British monarch is, in fact, the defining bad leader of American history. He and the system over which he presided were so dire that they fundamentally shaped our idea of what a leader should and shouldn’t be—inspiring Thomas Paine, the English radical who arrived on these shores in 1774, to compose Common Sense, the definitive condemnation of England’s abuses and an argument for breaking with the country. [Continue reading…]