The cult of presidential leadership


We live in an anxious society almost pathologically obsessed with leadership. Self-help books contain its secrets for frustrated middle managers. The websites offer lists of tips on how to make your children leaders. (“Teach them to be winners”, suggests “Surround them with leaders”, offers, threatening.) Universities offer undergraduate majors in the subject. And every presidential campaign inspires countless stories of men and women doing “bold choices“and taking”decisive action. ”

Journalists present these victorious heroes as great leaders of men, forged in the crisis – their attachment to the myth of presidential leadership being a natural by-product of a media industry preoccupied with speculation about the personality of the person in the office. oval. If Donald Trump came to power promising a fantasy of manly executive strength, then Joe Biden is selling a new brand of leadership. Do what Time called an “empathy offensive” after the death of George Floyd, the Biden campaign has always emphasized its moral and emotional traits in relation to any ideological agenda: it is his dignity and decency that will redeem “the soul. of the nation “. For liberals, leadership is what sets their candidate apart from the president: while newbie Trump is snappy, impulsive, and mean-spirited, the former Delaware senator and vice-president exudes restraint and smiling bonhomie.

The contrast between Trump’s macho authoritarianism and Biden’s recent turn as an introspective empath mixes two broad trends in the way “leadership” has been marketed in the United States. Nineteenth-century self-help manuals praised “men of industry” such as Francis Pettit Smith, the designer of a new type of steamboat propeller. Smith “was not a great inventor,” wrote Samuel Smiles in his 1884 book, Men of invention and industry. What Smith had was a “determined tenacity,” an aggressive trait the average person could develop, much like the “controlled neurosis” that Trump advised his own readers to embrace in The art of the transaction.


Kevin E. Boling

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