The more I watch domestic politics, from tragedy to humor to the dry, crunching gears of bureaucracy, the more I'm convinced that what the public wants in high office more than anything is a mastermind. They'd like a saintly, subtle genius, but they'll take a comic-book supervillian -- or even an idiot savant -- but nobody's comfortable with what we usually get, men struggling to keep up with an impossible job and not always succeeding.
The Presidency was a crazy idea to begin with, a working Head of State with a short fixed term instead of a King who'd grown up expecting the job and looking forward to a lifelong term: Americans were planning to run their government with an amateur, his hands largely tied by an elected (the House) and appointed (the Senate) legislature that controlled the budget, had final say on treaties and had the power to declare war at a time when no country did things that way. The Presidency turned out to be a job that made Washington grumpy, Jefferson peevish, and came close to killing several of their successors from overwork.
And we want that guy to be something special.* Some of the funniest and most satisfying Saturday Night Live sketches showed President Reagan transitioning from a doddering, grandfatherly type greeting visitors to a high-pressure schemer talking his henchmen through detailed plans to control the world -- and President Carter calmly answering question after question on topics from nuclear reactor emergency repairs to coping with a bad acid trip in great and accurate detail. Even when we don't like a particular President, we cook up complex and nefarious activities to impute to them; one of the more amusing aspects of critics of the most recent President Bush was that they never could decide if they thought he was an idiot or a smart sneak out to enrich himself and his cronies by stealing oil from the Middle East. We elect engineers and college professors to be President...and at best, they acquit themselves no better than career politicians in the same job.
So now we have President Donald Trump. His critics tell me he's a clever criminal, busily looting the fed.gov and enriching his pals; his fans tell me he's a deep and brilliant negotiator, playing the game seventeen moves ahead of everyone else, and they both are selling the notion that he's a -- what else? -- mastermind.
Imagine their mutual horror were he to turn out to be a big-talking real-estate developer, struggling to keep up with an impossible job.
* Admit it, you were uncomfortable when I referred to a couple of Founders as "grumpy" and "peevish." Yet they were mortal men, as moody as any other. Washington's writings occasionally give the impression of a man who'd like to use bad language and put his fist through a wall, but is too aware of the critical gaze of History to do so.
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