The Emotive Presidency
Campaigning in April 2016, Donald Trump concluded a typical rally with a boisterous crescendo:
You're gonna be so proud of your country if I get in. You're gonna be so proud of your president — and I don't care about that....We're gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning! And you'll say, "please, please, it's too much winning, we can't take it anymore! Mr. President, it's too much!" And I'll say, "no it isn't, we have to keep winning, we have to win more!"
Some in the anti-Trump press ridiculed this performance as a meltdown, even though Trump's Seinfeldian cadences had clearly entertained the friendly crowd. After Trump had laughed all the way to the presidency, his detractors trotted out this phrase whenever his administration faced headwinds. "I bet you're feeling tired of winning right about now, huh?" they taunted.
But if we understand "winning" in the right way, this was one promise Trump delivered on. His core supporters liked the president even more in 2020 than they did in 2016, precisely because his performances in office kept making them feel complicit in defying the hated establishment over and over and over again. Some of his supporters may have even gotten tired of this sort of winning, wishing instead for policy compromises they could take to the bank. But Trump, true to his promise, remained laser-focused on "winning" ever more.
Consider Trump's efforts on the southern border wall. His "build the wall!" refrain suggested a clear policy goal that could either be achieved or not. But upon taking office, even though his co-partisans controlled both chambers of Congress, Trump kept hammering the rhetorical theme without making a concerted push to speed up the languid pace at which border fencing was being constructed. His supporters could still applaud him as he went on blaming the powers that be for thwarting a more ambitious construction schedule. When Trump finally intensified his efforts — by declaring a national emergency that would allow the repurposing of some military funds to construct a physical wall — it was as much to emphasize his conflict with legislators as to achieve the stated goal. Enough wall was built to allow Trump to enrage opponents and claim a "build the wall" win emotionally, even if huge stretches of open border remained.
Presidential rhetoric has the potential to be politically clarifying, galvanizing a constituency around a push for meaningful action. Thus, presidents who try to "drive the conversation" may do so in service of their constitutional roles as heads of the executive branch and effective setters of the legislative agenda. Trump's masterstroke — inaccessible to others because it seems so straightforwardly self-destructive — was to realize that his core supporters did not care all that much about his governing, and that he was under no obligation to discern a mandate from the American people as a whole. Instead, by casting opposition to his rise as a manifestation of an insider-protecting "swamp" (a charge that establishment institutions did all they could to make credible), Trump was able to focus almost exclusively on "winning" in the form of emotively representing his supporters' concerns and commitments.
As in so many other matters, we might be tempted to treat Trump's style as sui generis. But the Trump era can be situated within a bigger story: the dream and disappointment of presidential representation.
At least since Woodrow Wilson, the president's representative role has been greatly exaggerated, to the detriment of healthy, legitimate representation of Americans' diverse interests. Author Daniel Stid has described Wilson's ideal executive as an "interpretive statesman." Political scientist Jeffrey Tulis, in an important 1987 book, criticized successive attempts to realize this ideal in his portrait of the "rhetorical presidency." But more recent developments have pointed toward what might be called the emotive presidency, which has been something of a reaction against (but not an improvement on) the delusions of the rhetorical presidency.
If the rhetorical presidency was a disappointment of Wilson's vision, the emotive presidency is a derangement, retaining the rhetorical presidency's basic flaws but cynically trading in aspirational, public-opinion leadership for social-media-fueled displays of indignation and mockery.
REPRESENTATION AND EXECUTIVE POWER
Donald Trump hardly invented the maneuver of defining himself through defiance of his enemies — think of Franklin Roosevelt declaring of the country's moneyed interests, "I welcome their hatred." Given the president's focal status as the one nationally elected official in American government, every chief executive will sometimes hold himself up as the faithful representative of the true people against the betrayers, whom he casts as alien. If this is "populism," then the overwhelming majority of American presidents going back to Thomas Jefferson have had their populist streaks.
But that was not a design feature of the presidency. Mindful of the potential for abuse inherent in executive authority, the Constitution's framers created an office they hoped would resist the pitfalls of classical demagoguery. This meant, first and foremost, that the constitutional presidency was fundamentally not a popular office. As Claremont McKenna's Joseph Bessette and the American Enterprise Institute's Gary Schmitt have convincingly shown, the presidency's discretionary powers were conceived as the means to accomplish specifically prescribed responsibilities listed in Article II of the Constitution.
To be sure, each of these responsibilities has representative aspects. The president's vantage point as head of the executive branch, for instance, gives him an unmatched perspective in determining what challenges the country faces, which he then must represent to Congress by reporting on the state of the union and recommending necessary and expedient legislative measures. In receiving ambassadors, he will have to represent America's interests to other foreign nations. But each of these forms of representation is tightly connected to the office's responsibilities. As such, none impinges on or threatens legislators' status as representatives of the people. Conversely, the president's focus on fulfilling his core responsibilities, including taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, is meant to be unperturbed by the need to embody the public's whims. In the framers' eyes, the president would be a steadfast leader, not an inveterate panderer.
This order is thrown out of balance when presidents try to be representatives in the sense of instantiating the people's will. Such attempts are nothing new, especially in the modern era. But Trump took them to an extreme, substituting representation — a peculiarly pathological, hollowed-out form of it — for the presidency's properly constitutional functions. By expressing (some) Americans' pent-up frustrations on the national stage, Trump sought to present himself as the most faithful and sympathetic representative of "the people." Most presidents have claimed to transcend partisan differences and speak for all Americans — to be sure, often dubiously. But for Trump, "the people" were his people — the "real" American people. And while Trump's base certainly had legitimate political grievances that deserved to be articulated, a great deal of his rhetoric and showmanship merely channeled the emotion behind those grievances. The reward for his followers was catharsis, not better political representation in a process geared toward meeting real challenges.
Trump stretched the presidency's representative function far beyond its limits. But when and how can the president credibly claim to be the people's representative? If faithful representation of the president's core supporters isn't an end in itself, what is it for? And how are American political institutions meant to work together to achieve faithful representation of a huge, diverse people?
THE INTERPRETIVE STATESMAN
By many accounts, we can trace the modern presidency's representational aspirations back to Woodrow Wilson, the political scientist and then politician who believed the president could revolutionize American politics. Wilson's attempts to put his theory into practice during his own tenure fell short, but his soaring vision of the presidency's potential stuck in the American imagination throughout the following century.
Wilson was frustrated with what he saw as inefficient, unaccountable politics dominated by corruption, factionalism, and gridlock. For much of his academic career, he argued for constitutional reforms that would institute a parliamentary-style "cabinet government," fusing the executive and legislative branches in a decisive break with America's traditional separation of powers. Later, though — whether prompted by a genuine rethinking of his ideas or an appreciation of what would be politically possible in the United States — Wilson began advocating reform within the existing constitutional structure. Now he identified not the cabinet, but the president, as the remedy for "leaderless" government and the vehicle for a more responsible politics. By drawing on his special connection with the people, Wilson insisted, the president would catalyze an "irresistible" movement for change that not even unwieldy lawmakers and party brokers could withstand.
Under Wilson's scheme, laid out in his 1908 book Constitutional Government in the United States, successful presidential leadership hinged on the president's role as popular representative. Wilson pushed for a national primary system that would establish the president's intimate bond with the people in the very process of selection, making public opinion the basis for a candidate's electoral victory — and for his governing mandate. While in office, the president would continue to lead public opinion through a dynamic process of "interpretation," which would involve tapping in to popular sentiments and lending them clarity and direction — or, to put it more crudely, channeling the will of the people. By embracing this sort of bottom-up mandate, the president would become an irresistible coordinating force in American politics, with his own party and Congress compelled to follow him.
Wilson believed that the separation of powers had handicapped the country's ability to deal with the challenges brought on by industrialization. Once he became president, he sought a tighter connection between the White House and the Democratic majority in the Capitol that could effectively unite the two branches. One of his main techniques for bridging the divide was regularly addressing Congress in person to persuade members of his agenda (which none of his predecessors since John Adams had done) and working closely with legislative leaders to formulate domestic policy. He hoped the result would be a more harmonious, enlightened politics, where institutions would work together under the president to deliver the "unified action" the people craved.
Yet in practice, harmony proved elusive. When friendly relations with Congress broke down, Wilson went over lawmakers' heads to appeal directly to the people — as in his doomed cross-country speaking tour of 1919, through which he attempted to rally public opinion behind the proposed League of Nations after it faced opposition in the legislature. Wilson failed to unite the people behind his cause (much less persuade recalcitrant Republicans in Congress), but he did demonstrate how a president who claims his authority from the people may try to speak to them directly, relying on the force of his personality and rhetoric to drive political outcomes.
Underlying Wilson's idea of the president as representative was an assumption about the fundamental unity of the American people, which alone lends coherence to the notion of an inchoate but unified "public opinion." As he saw it, this unity was obscured by accidental social divisions and our pathologically conflict-driven politics, but it was the leader's job to draw it out:
[The leader] speaks...not the rumors of the street, but a new principle for a new age; [he is] a man in whose ears the voices of the nation do not sound like accidental and discordant notes that come from the voice of a mob, but concurrent and concordant like the united voices of a chorus, whose many meanings, spoken by melodious tongues, unite in his understanding in a single meaning and reveal to him a single vision, so that he can speak what no man else knows, the common meaning of the common voice.
Members of Congress are beholden to parochial interests and prejudices; they can hardly claim to represent public opinion at large. The president, on the other hand, "is the representative of no constituency, but of the whole people....The nation as a whole has chosen him, and is conscious that it has no other political spokesman." Such a bond authorizes the president not only to speak on behalf of the people to the rest of the government, but to steer them forward into a "new age."
For Wilson, the interpretive statesman embodied the ideal of presidential leadership. He would be neither a demagogue who manipulated the masses nor a hapless pawn who bowed to the people's will. Rather, he would be a strong leader who used his personal powers of persuasion to draw out the best in the people, unifying them around high-minded principles and a plan of action. The people already shared common ideals and a common vision; the president's job was to make that vision a political reality.
It's hard to deny the attractiveness of Wilson's scheme. It remained to be seen, though, whether a tighter bond between the president and the people would produce a more enlightened public opinion, or whether it would foster the very demagoguery and institutional decline Wilson condemned.
THE RHETORICAL PRESIDENT
Jeffrey Tulis's Rhetorical Presidency, written from the vantage point of the Reagan era, takes stock of the presidency that Wilson's ideal helped produce — one that was only partially transformed. The office possessed a dual identity throughout the 20th century, torn between the framers' office, which was based on formal authorities and responsibilities bestowed by the Constitution; and the rhetorical presidency, grounded in informal authority emanating from the president's connection to the electorate.
By the mid-20th century, the rhetorical presidency and its accompanying concept of "mandate" were ascendant in the American imagination. Franklin Roosevelt's carefully cultivated connection to the American people set the mold that his Democratic successors would follow. Following the soaring rhetoric of his 1960 campaign, John Kennedy navigated domestic affairs by relying on his personal charisma to, as Tulis put it, "pit public opinion against his own government."
Republicans, too, embraced the idea that the president's central task is to speak to and for the people. Richard Nixon campaigned as the spokesman of "the great, quiet forgotten majority" who could articulate "the real message of America" and "hold out a vision of the future and rally the people behind it." Paraphrasing Wilson's Constitutional Government, he described the president as "the one official who represents every American."
Ronald Reagan, the "Great Communicator" who, for Tulis, epitomized the rhetorical presidency, likewise identified himself as "a citizen representing my fellow citizens against the institution of government" (as if representation were not integral to government itself!) and invoked the "special kind of compact" that existed between the electorate and their chosen leaders. He presumed that deep down, "the people" shared the same traditional values, which needed to be drawn out for the healing and unity of the nation.
Like Wilson, Reagan thought national divisions were artificial and that normal politics could be transcended under the right leader. As Claremont McKenna professor Charles Kesler observed, Reagan's brand of conservatism was less about conserving the constitutional order Wilson had challenged than about advancing conservative "values" through depoliticized, populist rhetoric. The dyspeptic scholar Theodore Lowi lamented that, preoccupied by the ceaseless selling of such an elusive vision, the president had become "the Wizard of Oz. Appearances become everything."
In practice, presidential attempts at Wilsonian leadership have often fallen woefully short, thwarted by the separation of powers and the inflexibility of parties and electorates. In the League of Nations fiasco, Wilson attempted to lead Congress by leading the nation and failed on both counts, utterly misreading public opinion and permanently alienating both Republicans and fellow Democrats in Congress. At the same time, if presidents do successfully lean on public opinion to force their legislative agendas through Congress, they may undermine healthy deliberation in the process.
This was the case with Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, a sloppy legislative program thrown together after the president made a stirring rhetorical appeal for "this Congress and all Americans" to join him in the fight to eradicate poverty. LBJ's administration steamrolled this program through Congress, where it passed without any meaningful debate — a short-term legislative success but, in Tulis's estimation, a long-term policy failure. The War on Poverty was a typical blunder of the rhetorical presidency: LBJ made a chimerical promise to the people that no president could fulfill, even as he disregarded the institution that did have the power and capacity to legislate effectively. Thus, the rhetorical presidency impairs the proper functioning of the separation of powers without overcoming it, leaving us not with Wilson's "responsible government," but a dysfunctional political system.
James Ceaser's 1979 book Presidential Selection, a forerunner of Tulis's work, suggested that presidents were trapped and weakened by their own grandiose ambitions. By investing so much in an expansive, representative notion of their office, which had to be propped up on the shaky foundation of public opinion, presidents set themselves a near-impossible task of "mass persuasion" not only of the people, but of their party and Congress as well. Besides continually rallying public support for their agenda, presidents are expected to "speak out on perceived crises and to minister to the moods and emotions of the populace." Every presidency is thus consumed by a "permanent campaign" that prioritizes demagogic speeches and optics above actual governing.
Ceaser, Tulis, and several other scholars demonstrated how these tendencies were reinforced by the new, plebiscitary system instituted in the 1960s and '70s, where primaries rather than party conventions play the decisive role in selecting a party's nominee. Wilson and his progressive heirs thought a primary system would combat demagoguery, lifting national politics above the clash of partisan interests and making presidents accountable to the people. In actuality, the system rewards not candidates with the experience and integrity needed to govern well, but those who can persuasively channel the people's most transient and inflammatory passions. "Far from reinforcing our country's principles and protecting its institutions," Ceaser, Tulis, and their co-authors observed, "the rhetorical presidency leads us to neglect our principles for our hopes and to ignore the benefits and needs of our institutions for a fleeting sense of oneness with our leaders."
We might add that this "fleeting sense of oneness" damages representation, both in theory and in practice. By prioritizing presidential representation above other forms, the rhetorical presidency propagates the fiction that one man can meaningfully speak for hundreds of millions in all the important aspects of political life.
The rhetoric of representation employed by modern presidents is more intelligible in times of national crisis. When Americans face a shared threat or challenge, they are more able to see themselves as one people, and they look to leaders who can provide symbolic unity and act decisively in the common interest. Yet as Tulis explains, the rhetorical presidency breaks down the distinction between normal and crisis politics precisely for this reason: Presidents with an existential reliance on public opinion must invent "pseudo-crises" to justify incessant popular appeals. This, in turn, generates a "boy who cried wolf" problem: Invocations of crises become so numbingly familiar that they impair the president's ability to bring Americans together in moments of real crisis. As his declarations of unity and solidarity begin to ring hollow, some start to suspect that when the president claims to speak and act for "the people," he is not speaking or acting for them at all.
THE EMOTIVE PRESIDENT
While Tulis's analysis still resonates, in the 21st century we are faced with a presidency somewhat different than the one he observed in the 1980s. We may offer two explanations for this: First, the rapid evolution of media has changed how presidents interact with the people. Second, decades of unfulfilled promises mean that Americans have grown tired of the rhetorical presidency's self-righteous grandiosity. The soaring oratory of JFK was convincing in his time, but is a spent force in our own — which creates room for a new, more realistic form of presidential representation geared toward a more suspicious populace.
For most of the 20th century, the insuperable difficulties of communicating directly with the entire country forced presidents to rely on the mass media's intermediation, which framed the president's rhetoric to the people but also framed the people's views to the White House. Ceaser, Tulis, and their co-authors wrote that the print-radio-television news cycle presented "continuous 'sophisticated' analyses that serve[d] as a surrogate audience, speaking to the government and supposedly representing to it what the people [were] saying and thinking." The president attempted to interpret his mandate and discern the will of the people as communicated through these media. Meanwhile, the commentators of talk radio and the Sunday interview shows offered their own real-time counter-interpretations, creating a kind of inescapable chorus hovering over the American people's attempts to make sense of political developments.
As the 21st century dawned, an ever-more sprawling, ubiquitous national media threatened to gain the upper hand in this delicate balance of power. University of Pennsylvania's John DiIulio, Jr., coined the term "hyper-rhetorical presidency" to describe the George W. Bush administration, where the 24/7 news cycle, not the White House, drove presidential rhetoric. The media demanded "answers to things, political things, media things, global things, all day long," forcing the president to respond instantly lest his silence itself become the news story. As political scientist Richard Holtzman observed, the president's best bet in approaching this Sisyphean task was to maintain "the appearance of control" (emphasis added) by always saying something, no matter how ill-considered or inane.
As a presidential candidate, Bush's successor, Barack Obama, unlocked the potential of social media to fundamentally alter this relationship and, in the process, shifted the focus of presidential rhetoric. Rather than offer the public a clear policy agenda, he took to social media to offer his message of "hope and change." Working with Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, he built my.barackobama.com into a potent social network grounded in his charismatic presence; through "Obama for America," he built an independent campaign infrastructure that freed him from reliance on Democratic Party machinery.
Traditional media marveled at Obama's progress; before long, they made him a full-fledged super-celebrity, famous for being the man who was going to be president. Entertainers flocked to the cause, which occasionally achieved a cult-like quality in celebrating the Dear Leader. The sense of personal connection Obama created conveyed the impression that he was somehow bigger than normal politics — an impression that somewhat abated once he took office and governed as a committed partisan.
Like Obama, Donald Trump used his remarkable gift for resonating with mass audiences to bypass his party and appeal directly to its base voters, relying more on affect than reasoned policy arguments. While Obama had capitalized on a widespread feeling of hope and optimism about American progress, Trump saw a new opportunity in the sense of fear and anger that had supplanted it.
Also like Obama, Trump found a way to reinvent the president's representational role for an emotive age. If Obama had co-opted the media, Trump brashly confronted them, denying that they could legitimately intermediate between the president and the public. Naming the left-leaning media "enemies of the American people," Trump challenged their representative role and reiterated his own: He understood the people and was willing to rub elbows with them — at least virtually on Twitter, where a constant and unfiltered stream of presidential communication created a sense that Trump was really conversing with his supporters.
As Tulis observed in the 2017 edition of The Rhetorical Presidency, if previous presidents relied on television to speak over the heads of Congress, "Twitter enables the president to deliver messages in his own unfiltered words 'over the heads' of the mainstream media." Though the old-line media reviled Trump as much as they celebrated Obama, they were similarly transfixed by his performances such that they could not help but amplify his presence. Their obsessive monitoring of Trump's tweets and rallies gave him a bigger place on the national stage than any previous president, while their hysterical invectives against Trump and his ilk only confirmed his supporters' suspicions that the "fake news media" were no friend of the American people.
In the eyes of Trump's defenders, his subversion of the unrepresentative media was a triumph. In 2017, Modern Age editor Daniel McCarthy praised Trump for paving "a new path to political legitimacy, one that involves winning elections without trying to pass the media's tests." Gone were the days when the president and the media cozied up to each other with expressions of mutual adoration, co-conspirators in the betrayal of Middle America. Trump "knew he could command an audience of his own," and he harnessed that skill to tell the people what they already knew: that the establishment no longer deserved their trust. McCarthy's verdict was that Trump was winning the "struggle for legitimacy" because he recognized "that public opinion places him under no obligation to treat the press with any deference."
If the rhetorical presidency was built on a fictional connection between the president and the people, Trump presented himself as flinging off its deceits and corruptions in order to build a truly authentic relationship with his supporters. Unlike past presidents, he was resigned to the deep division among the American people and rarely even pretended to speak for all of them, pointing out, "I think my base is so strong, I'm not sure I have to do that" (to the fury of his critics, who still clung to the ideal of the president as national unifier).
Speaking only for his base at least had the effect of rendering Trump's representative role more believable. According to Vanderbilt's John Dearborn, Trump may have deliberately capitalized on a broad loss of faith in presidential representation as previously understood. When Joe Biden tried to return to pre-Trump rhetoric — pledging to be "'a president...who doesn't see red states and blue states [but] only sees the United States' ...the New York Times editorial board described it as 'a soothing bit of uplift' with a decidedly hollow ring."
A seasoned entertainer, Trump unified his supporters by giving vent to their emotions. Employing cadences borrowed from stand-up comics and radio shock jocks, Trump transformed populist rage into a positive emotion: gleeful shared mockery of the politicians and elites who had betrayed the true Americans. This was, in the loosest sense, a Wilsonian act of "interpretation," channeling and guiding a well of anger and alienation held in common (at least on an affective level) by many different Americans. If it is not possible for one man to meaningfully represent the political interests of the whole people, Trump did at least manage to stir up the nebulous emotion of his base such that it became a political phenomenon with genuine unifying force.
But rather than translating people's grievances into action, Trump's performances were offered as their own reward. (On Twitter, "dunking on" one's opponents is an integral part of the culture, so Trump's belittling of his opponents fit right in.) Even after he became president, Trump's self-image as a winner derived more from the high-energy rallies in which his supporters went wild for his routine than from tangible policy accomplishments. The "post-campaign campaign," with its shared outpouring of emotion, was the main event; the dorks in the White House might be up to something worthwhile, but as far as Trump and his supporters were concerned, that was a sideshow. This is the age of offense-taking, not position-taking — let alone policymaking.
An anecdote related by New York Times writer Charles Homans encapsulates the scornful spirit of the Trump presidency: At one post-election rally, Trump denied accusations that he was not very "presidential" with a mocking impersonation of a president delivering a crowd-pleasing address. "I'm very presidential!" he exclaimed, then "stiffened in his suit and adopted a stentorian tone, like a fourth grader doing an impression of his school principal." Realizing he could exploit voters' exhaustion with the hollow idealism of the Obama era, Trump had turned the rhetorical presidency into a self-conscious parody of itself. Perhaps this is why some conservative critics of earlier presidents' rhetorical excesses, including Charles Kesler, have been able to put aside some of their qualms and praise Trump — although it remains jarring to see those who warned of demagoguery's dangers warm to the forever-rallying president.
We still live in the shadow of the rhetorical presidency, now transformed for a cynical age into an emotive presidency that casts off the restraints of formal media institutions, the veneer of rational policy deliberation, and the idealism of attempts to impose unity on a fractured people. When Daniel McCarthy wrote in 2017, it was perhaps still an open question whether Trump's strategy to weaken the media's hold on the public would clear the path for innovative disruptions of stale policy arrangements. With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that his success at emoting instead made it easier for him to simply ignore his administration's weaknesses — among which was an inability to master the executive branch itself. In terms of governance, the emotive presidency of the 21st century is shaping up to be even more painfully deficient than the rhetorical presidency of the 20th. But to many Americans, that seems somehow beside the point.
The theatrics have not stopped in the Biden administration. Although the octogenarian president's talents are clearly better suited to the rhetorical age now passing, even many of his supporters appear to accept the premise that success in national politics means an ever-more authentic connection between the president and the people. They have sought to frame Biden as delivering it by virtue of what he is — a regular Joe.
Indeed, as Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole observed, Biden has the most popular appeal when he plays the part of "designated mourner," wherein he can offer a heartfelt sense of fellow feeling by drawing on his own considerable grief as a widower and father who has lost two children. Unlike Obama, Biden is not a terribly convincing salesman for the hope of the American dream, but he excels at "a politics of empathy in which the leader shares the pain of the citizen." This, like Trump's emotive populism, is a kind of representative act, but again one that departs from the ordinarily political.
Biden's knack for sentimental displays has not made him a strong president; despite his long career in the Senate, he has forgotten how to play the institutional games in our system of separated powers. As a result, he routinely fails to satisfy American voters or build an effective majority in Congress — an echo of the failures of Wilsonian leadership.
Once citizens, understood as consumers of political performances, come to see emoting as the president's most important work, the old, constitutionally provided powers of the presidency lose their purchase. The political process envisioned by the framers necessarily unfolds across time, not within the confines of a disposable news cycle. Deliberation is about weighing competing considerations, and representation in this process is meant to ensure that people's concerns are weighted appropriately. But news-cycle combat is all about displaying bravado by throwing punches. If the point is to help your supporters feel something right now, most constitutional tools are insufficiently instant. The president's status as the most famous person in the world eclipses his duties as the most powerful; his celebrity crowds out responsible governing.
BACK TO POLITICS
If we are to find any escape from the emotive presidency, it will not be through a transcendence of ordinary politics, but a renewal of it. A persistent thread woven through modern presidencies is a sense that partisan politics, with its parochialism and interest-driven bickering, is unseemly and can be overcome by a visionary leader. If such transcendence has come to seem obviously illusory, could the American people and their leaders finally surrender their impossible expectations and accept the reality of representative government in our constitutional system?
To begin down this path, we must reject the brazenly presumptuous claims of presidential representation instead of simply accepting them as routine. For presidents to promise so much to the people, and for the people to demand so much of them, is an exercise in futility. By calling into question the president's representativeness, we can spark a more robust conversation about what Americans really want and need from their government, and what counts as a credible claim to represent them.
Yale political theorist Bryan Garsten says this exercise is essential to healthy representative democracy: Since any form of political representation is necessarily imperfect, part of our task is to "multiply and challenge governmental claims to represent the people" so as "to prevent any one interpretation of the popular will from claiming final authority." This multiplication of representative claims is built into our constitutional system: The House, the Senate, and yes, even the president, can credibly assert that they represent the people in some way. But no particular entity or institution — certainly not the singular president — can claim to fully and perfectly embody the people's will.
We also must attend to the power of political imagination. The rhetorical presidency and its successor, the emotive presidency, depend on our imagining a world where all political events and institutions revolve around a larger-than-life president, like planets around the sun. In the age of mass media and polarized national politics, the presidency holds an outsized place in our collective psyche. People tend to be hyperconscious of the president and all his doings at the cost of being ignorant or indifferent about their congressmen and state and local leaders.
Especially as media grow ever more sophisticated, there is no erasing the role of the imagination. But it can be redirected toward a healthier, more balanced political order. For example, we might hope that Congress regains some of the mystique it possessed in, say, the mid-20th century. A revitalized Congress may be able to compete with the presidency for a place in the people's imagination — though that is much easier said than done when members' surest route to a place in citizens' imaginations is to embrace the role of emoters, directing their energies at the White House or the Supreme Court.
On a deeper level, we might consider how imagination relates to political representation per se. We accept our representatives as legitimate so long as we perceive that they are bound to us in some intangible way. There is, of course, the concrete fact that we elect our representatives, and that they sometimes hold a common interest with us by virtue of shared history, ethnicity, or geography. But perhaps, as University of Edinburgh's Oliver O'Donovan has argued, representation cannot be sustained without a deeper and more mysterious capacity to imagine ourselves as a people — a "we" that somehow acts through our representatives. If this imaginative link between ourselves and our congressmen has been broken, how might it be restored?
No matter how entrenched the emotive presidency seems, there is always the chance that the American people will finally get sick of being governed poorly, leading them to realize the importance of the duty-bound presidency. Some Trump critics suggest that the Trump era may have heralded the last gasp of the rhetorical presidency, drawing our attention to just how pathological our national executive office has become. If Obama's stirring promises of transformation and Biden's mournful pleas for unity have grown stale, Trump's cynical emotive appeals are exhausting in their own way. The inevitable dissatisfactions of the emotive presidency may prompt Americans to start electing leaders who have the integrity and competence to govern well, instead of those whose talent lies in meeting their base's emotional needs and fueling the news cycle with entertaining spectacles.
If Americans are to remain a self-governing people, they cannot live by bread and circus alone.