I’ve bandied the word strongman about our household a fair amount the last few months, especially since the Donald Trump’s election to the presidency on November 8. You have the feeling this is the first time in history voters have sent a strongman to the White House. We have done it before, most memorably in the cases of Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt. I do not mean to raise Trump in our estimation with a comparison to these two other presidents. I want to make us think about why enough people admire people of this stripe, to send them to the White House.
Let’s start with a question about parties, who nominate leaders for election to the presidency. A common assessment during Trump’s rise – from Independents, Republicans, and Democrats – is that he hijacked the Republican party. If Democrats had nominated Bernie Sanders, no one but Hillary Clinton would say he hijacked the party. Progressive Democrats would say he took his party further to the left, where they feel it ought to be. So why the difference here? Why do we define an independent socialist in terms of left vs. right, but a strongman as someone who hijacked the party that nominated him?
An item omitted here is a working definition of ‘strongman’ – ‘I know one when I see one,’ gives you a practical means of identification.
That’s something of a complicated question. As indicated above, we have had only two other presidents clearly perceived as strongmen, Andrew Jackson while he occupied the White House, and Theodore Roosevelt as we compare him with other leaders of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Other presidents fail the strongman test, each for reasons that reveal a lot about the individual presidents, the presidency as an institution, and the state of American politics at the time.
The interesting thing is, people during these two presidencies did not argue that the heroes of New Orleans and San Juan hijacked their parties. Jackson was no Jeffersonian, yet he led his party as he led the nation. Roosevelt was no Lincoln, but he led his party, and someone decided he belonged on Mount Rushmore. Perhaps someone will want to build a political, not a commercial monument to Donald Trump someday. If it happens, apologists for strong presidents who expand the office’s powers, decade after decade, may realize at the end of the road that we took a wrong turn when we started to regard presidents who assert unconstitutional powers as good leaders.
An item omitted here is a working definition of strongman. “I know one when I see one,” gives you a practical means of identification. Yet a strongmen in U. S. politics often do not resemble strongmen in other places, or other times. The U. S. has its own political culture. When the culture and electoral system produces a strongman, we understand the concept, and the leader, within specific traditions, habitual judgments, and institutional traits. Whether you take a look at Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Huey Long, or Donald Trump, how you define their leadership relative to other strongmen in history depends on your own perceptions of current political culture. So I’ll leave the ways we define or recognize strongmen for another article, confident you will not say, “Oh, he thinks Trump is another Teddy Roosevelt!” They are both bullies – other comparisons will have to wait.
A final thing to note is that our public school history books tend to recognize our presidents through a filter that favors strongmen: the stronger the better. Few people come out of these brick-built training camps for democracy with critical opinions of Jackson and Roosevelt. These individuals were great presidents, we’re told – heroes and halo wearers, actually – though you begin to wonder why when you learn more about who they were and what they did. On the other side, presidents with integrity, but perceived as weak, arrive in our history books far down in the presidential rankings. Think of Ulysses S. Grant, Zachary Taylor, or Calvin Coolidge.
Self-advertisement may help you become president, but it does not make you a good one. Lao Tzu teaches us, among other things: not all egoistic leaders are great, and not all great leaders are egoists.
Will Donald Trump be our first strongman president to be consigned to the lower ranks, along with presidents perceived as weak and therefore not worth so much attention? That raises a question: why do a fair number of citizens appear ready to grant power and authority to people who do not seem to care about democracy? Often they seem brazenly honest and dishonest about their intentions at the same time. These leaders apparently do not possess integrity beyond, “What I say goes.” Will we ever praise or seek leaders of the type we read about in Lao Tzu: unobtrusive, quiet, effective, intelligent, open minded, and strategic?
I suppose that tells you, Chinese political culture in Lao Tzu’s time differs from American political culture in Donald Trump’s time. No one will write The Tao of Trump, which points ironically to the oxymoronic meaning of that title. He has already built himself plenty of monuments, to display his name on large buildings in large gold letters. Self-advertisement may help you become president, but it does not make you a good one. Lao Tzu teaches us, among other things: not all egoistic leaders are great, and not all great leaders are egoists.