A significant percentage of the population desires strong leadership to direct the world about them. Social scientists have more to say about how big the number is. Studies I followed many decades ago suggested about half the adult population preferred strong leadership in their working lives: bosses who were clear about what to do, how to do it, and what the reward for doing it would be. The same expectation transferred to expectations of leadership outside of work, including home and community. Those old studies were conducted on adult, white males, most were veterans of WWII or the Korean War. The biases are obvious. More recent studies, such as a Democracy Fund voter study from March, 2018, suggest the percentage favoring dominant or authoritarian national leaders was in the vicinity of 25%. An August 11, 2017 HBR article by Kakkar and Sivanathan summarized their studies suggesting the percentage goes up and down depending on the seriousness of economic uncertainty as perceived by voters. The point is, there are a lot of voters out there predisposed to favoring more autocratic leadership, even as they claim to be individualists valuing freedom and democracy.
Who among recent presidents might be considered strong, dominant, even a little autocratic? Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, and Trump come to mind. What about Reagan? I think not. His staff is another question, but they weren’t elected. Clinton? I don’t know what to do with Clinton. Strong and decisive tending toward autocracy does’t seem to fit. He didn’t earn the nickname “Slick Willy” for nothing. What about Obama? Libertarian acquaintances complained loudly that they suffered much under his eight years of authoritarian rule. When pressed on exactly how they suffered, or in what way he was authoritarian, it turns out the problem was he was smart, articulate, able, and black.
Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower were strong, decisive leaders, dedicated to American democratic values. Johnson, the undisputed master of political strong arming, was deeply committed to civil rights and the working class, but the Vietnam War undid him. His decision not to run for reelection seems a little like the moment in Greek tragedies when the hero recognizes he is his own fatal enemy.
Each in their own way appealed to the 25 to 50% of the voting public that favor an authoritarian hand of strong, decisive national leadership. Nevertheless, they understood the sanctity of the three branches of government, the need to work through and with Congress, and the limits of executive authority, even as they pushed those limits. That made them acceptable to the majority of Americans who oppose autocratic rule yet recognized in each of them persons of enough integrity to be trusted to defend American democratic ideals. Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower would push boundaries of executive authority, but respected limits imposed by law and tradition. Their political opponents were vigilant and tough, yet always displayed respect for the office of president, if not the person in the office.
That brings us to Nixon and Trump.
Nixon was a devious autocrat with little regard for the law. I’d like to think there remained in him a germ of dedication to American democracy, but suspect he got out just ahead of the posse to save his own skin. With that said, listen to some of his campaign speeches. They were well crafted, intelligent, demonstrated a solid grasp of issues, and assured voters that he had their best interests in mind. Nixon may have been an autocratic crook, but he was a well educated, very intelligent, highly experienced crook who knew how to run the government and engage foreign leaders. For all his crimes, he also engineered detente with China and established the EPA.
Trump had none of Nixon’s qualities. Poorly educated, street smart but not intelligent, ignorant of basic civics and history, and lacking in empathy for anyone but himself. But he had the gift of selling illusions to people who desperately wanted to believe the illusions to be real. It made a lot of money for him if not as much as he claimed, and it appears that illegally cooking the books has been his standard operating procedure. There were enough successes amongst many failures to give the illusions a veneer of substance. He was so good at selling illusions he began to believe in them – the con man conned himself. His greatest con was to present himself as the one and only person in all of America who could give to the common (white) man all that his heart desired. With the swagger of Prof. Harold Hill, he barely edged his way into the presidency, while claiming the most overwhelming victory in presidential history. He acted the role of what he imagined a strong, decisive, autocrat to be, and he acted it well enough to convince a sizable following of disciples. Four years of blundering, directionless, incompetent, corruption laden presidency were enough to end his time in office, but not enough to disillusion his dedicated followers.
Trump’s strutting across the presidential stage in the role of strong man autocrat would be comically buffoonish, except that it captured the loyal imagination of millions who would willingly trade American democracy for trumpian autocracy. With his defeat, the door was opened for other, more competent would be autocrats to seize the possibility of moving the nation away from commitment to American ideals of democracy, and toward a pseudo democracy ruled by oligarchs. Will they succeed? Is that the path the nation will take? We don’t know.
A lot will depend on 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election. A lot will depend on the public’s perception of Biden’s leadership and accomplishments. He is a decisive, forceful leader, but doesn’t have the swagger too many voters associate with strong leadership. He insists on thorough evaluations of conditions and probabilities. Instant solutions are not his thing. His public demeanor evokes images of Mr. Rogers. He knows how to delegate, and doesn’t need to be the smartest, toughest person in the room. He is unalterably committed to the ideals of American democracy, and believes little of lasting consequence can happen without congressional cooperation. How all that plays out remains to be seen. The right wing media are intent on portraying him as a doddering old fool unable to keep up with the fast changing world. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but it’s an easy sell because their gullible audience was raised on a cavalcade of revenge movies glamorizing authoritarian heroes meting out lethal violence and calling it justice.
Voters who would prefer a more autocratic national leadership are int he minority, but they’re rabidly intent on a more trumpian form of government, somehow believing it will preserve their individual rights. Some corporate leaders, epitomized by the Koch Network, have long hoped for the U.S. to become a republic in which libertarian oligarchs hold the reins of power. Not only would it keep government out of the business of business, but, in their view, successful oligarchs are more capable of running things than politicians and the lower classes. Trumpian voters are the pawns they need to make it possible. They’d rather do without Trump, but they need his voters and they think they have them through a web of junior chipmunk trumpian wannabes in congress and state houses.
Can they do it? It depends on how hard the majority of Americans who treasure our democracy are willing to protect it. Right and left centrists will have to collaborate with liberals to see that authoritarian right wingers fail. It will require a new form of politics where no race or ethnicity is labeled a minority, and each is able to participate as a part of the whole, with their traditions and cultures given full voice in the public debate. Can they do it?