Washington, D.C. is a police state even in good times. Unique in the land of the free, only there do you find officers casually toting assault rifles outside of Union Station as though Amtrak has just staged a coup within, or vast swaths of road abruptly shut down because the secretary of agriculture has decided he wants a deep tissue massage on the other side of town. And during presidential inaugurations, the tight security becomes Orwellian. Even without the deluge of visitors that Barack Obama attracted in 2009 (only to discover that being witnesses to history meant watching it on a Jumbotron two miles away), there will still be enough hassles during Donald Trump’s swearing-in to make it best observed on our incoming president’s most natural medium: television.
All this—the security, the round-the-clock TV coverage—is fitting for the American presidency. Most executives of first-world nations are either glorified figureheads or elected leaders; the president is an elevated version of both, the godhead of our civic religion and the undisputed field marshal of federal policy. Only our constitutional proscription on titles prevents his supporters from calling him ‘Dear Leader’, and the opposition from poisoning his food. While Brown begat Cameron begat May with remarkable seamlessness, it is still possible to find Washingtonians who collapse into catatonic states over the trauma of Richard Nixon’s resignation. The writer Gene Healy has diagnosed this as a ‘cult of the presidency’. The president, Healy writes, is ‘America’s shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host’. He is also a reflection of our collective mood, a sum of the voters who elevated him to office and now expect him to be just like them.
This is why, when Barack Obama cedes power to Donald Trump on Friday atop a chilly dais in front of the Capitol building, it will grate him deeply. Obama was elected in 2008 as a vessel of American optimism after eight years of grinding war and recession under George W. Bush. He was Bush’s antithesis, to an extent, eloquent where his predecessor was tongue-tied, cerebral rather than motivated by boldfaced ideas. It didn’t do him much good, of course. Obama’s belief that technocracy could alleviate the country’s woes helped produce the most sluggish and unequal economic recovery since the Great Depression, and his foreign policy was perplexingly disjointed. He’ll be remembered for a handful of substantive firsts—the capture of Osama bin Laden, certainly, and his endorsement of gay marriage—but more than that it’s his image that will make the hagiography, the first African-American president, unflappable, a decent man who was relatively free of personal scandal. Having arrived on the superficial, he’ll depart on it, too.
Donald Trump is a superficial personality as well. But whereas Obama’s image was as a paladin of progress, Trump sells himself as a supervillain for the little guy. His pitch is steeped in cynicism: Washington is indelibly corrupt, so you may as well send him there, since he’s participated in the malfeasance and can leverage it to the people’s benefit. He rejects Obama’s woolly-headed conception of progress, choosing instead to hearken back to a bountiful past that’s been lost in the vegetable-oil exhaust of the past eight years. Not all of this is illogical—Donald Trump, it must be admitted, has a point—but it is a direct repudiation of Obama. Even if Trump leaves Obamacare largely intact, even if he doesn’t deport the dreamers, his very presence at that ceremony will reveal that the promise of Obama’s presidential cult, the wonkish and unified idyll it was supposed to create, never came to pass.
The national mood is Trumpian now. On the inauguration stage, then, America’s forty-fourth president will confront his nemesis, and then anoint him the most powerful man on the planet. The two will be cordial and may even borrow each other’s themes (Trump’s speech is rumoured to be heavy on unity), though the actual status of their relationship will be impossible to discern. It was Obama who encouraged the recalcitrant Hillary Clinton to concede on election night. He later assisted his former flame-coiffed tormentor during the early days of the transition, earning praise from Trump and possibly rescuing parts of Obamacare in the process. A U-turn was taken in December when Trump suddenly erupted on Twitter over ‘inflammatory President O statements and roadblocks,’ but a call from Obama reportedly smoothed things over. Then again, the president’s press secretary did recently compare Trump to an American private convicted of espionage. So there’s that.
However much bonhomie there is, the inauguration will be an implicit show of defeat for Obama, the day matter met antimatter. Or will it? Maybe Trump, in spite of his temperamental excesses, will emerge after four years as the progressive that left-wing ideology never allowed Obama to be. Maybe Trump will unshackle our economy from the manacles of government, finally hash out a legible immigration policy, unite the English-speaking peoples in trade and alliance as the European Union falters and China demands a counterweight. Maybe, maybe, maybe. That’s the thing about Dear Leader: you end up projecting onto him, whether you mean to or not.
Matt Purple is the Deputy Editor for Rare Politics