For a long time, I did not know how to approach writing this article. The election of Donald Trump was a significant event in American politics and, for many people, signified difficult truths about the American electorate. But I was unsure how to relate this event to a theological question. At what point do ethics intersect with policy? What code of ethics should we adhere to in a multi-faith and non-faith nation?
But the issue that struck me most was how much of the discourse surrounding the Trump presidency regarded his violations of ethics. There seem to be two major camps here: those who are appalled by Trump’s many ethical failings—his “pussy grabbing” comment, the racism, the sexism, the fear-mongering and the hatred—and those who are less concerned with those issues, for various reasons. I won’t hide that I have serious problems with Trump; however, I think the factors that led to his election are complex, and cannot be boiled down to xenophobia, racism and sexism.
My question is, if Trump fails ethically on so many counts, why was he elected? Is it that the American electorate does not care about the morals of its leaders? I think most people would argue the opposite. Historically, we have criticized our presidents for all their personal failings.
In fact, I will argue that the social condition that results in presidents being held as moral examples to the population is the same condition that allowed a buffoon like Trump to be elected. This condition relates to our history as an English colony, and as an early democracy that framed itself in conversation with existing governmental structures of the time, most of which were divine monarchies.
Along with our status as a “superpower” (x-ray vision not included), our political heritage prompts us to see our presidents as figures of supreme, quasi-divine power.
In a democracy that prides itself on forgoing kings, we seem rather obsessed with the image of absolute power. Just compare a Trump family portrait with a portrait of Louis XIV and the royal family, including the little future Louis XV:
Stone columns, elaborate furnishings and intricate patterns. In both images, the patriarch is seated while his family members stand (or ride stuffed lions, in the case of Barron). The New York City skyline has replaced the lavish paintings, but it is the same recognizable scheme: a figure of power realized by representations of wealth, and ratified by his line of succession.
Trump is playing into a very old narrative. In many ways, we mythologize the presidency. The founding fathers become fables to teach children lessons. We read picture books about the presidents’ childhoods, and, when we’re older, we memorize their names. Documentaries on presidents’ lives are made every year, producing a rapidly-expanding lore as time allows for archetypal associations to emerge. Even when a presidential figure has a dark past, depictions in popular media often gloss over these indiscretions.
The model of divinely-inspired rulership, cemented in what scholars call the age of absolutism begun in the early Renaissance and lasting until the insurrections of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, continues to inform American ideals of the presidency. In the later monarchies of Western Europe, kings and queens claimed to be inspired by God to serve their populations justly. We no longer see our leaders as divinely inspired, but we continue to look to them as moral examples and to lambaste them when they fail. Much of a presidential election revolves around character attacks and character affirmations, of SNL parodies and visits to county fairs, all dedicated to building the candidate’s persona.
But this model of divine rulership also places the leader above reproach. To question the king would be to question God. The history of Western Europe is bulging with the weight of inept kings who maintained their power because of this insidious philosophy. Until they didn’t, and kings were replaced by democratic leaders. Yet again and again, these leaders replicated the arrogance of their monarchal forefathers. After the French Revolution, it took a century and a half of insurgence to get to a working democracy, partly, I think, because of a cultural orientation toward authoritarian leaders.
Donald Trump is arrogant, brash, and conceited; he is able to get away with things that most people cannot. It seems astounding that such a character would gain so much popular support, and many pundits have framed Trump’s success in spite of these unfortunate traits. I think that is missing the point. I think Trump was elected because people like him and the way he acts.
The image of the domineering ruler must still resonate with us. We maintain the illusion that a tyrant’s callousness will defend us from harm, that his demanding personality will serve the national interest, that his paranoia and hatred will benefit us at the expense of the less-deserving. We believe this because we recognize these traits on the subconscious level as belonging to authority. Trump acted as if he were immune to limitations of power, and so we gave him that power. In uncertain times, the population looks to established frameworks for security. We chose Trump.
Is this the only reason people voted for Trump? Certainly not. But I think the current discourse sorely lacks a deep analysis on why Trump appeals to so many people, most of whom are not evil. We cannot begin to address the systemic problems in the United States without first understanding their origins. I believe that we are currently committing the same error of judgment as many other nations with a history of authoritarian rulership. This does not mean that American democracy is dead, but that we need to closely examine our sets of cultural and ethical values, and whether they are the ones we want to maintain.
Cover Photo: Jonathan Cheng
Nicole Flibbert is a senior at Penn majoring in tea studies (but in public she's a Medievalist). Her hobbies include visiting old libraries and fighting demons that have escaped from ancient theological tomes.