Imagine a group of distinguished citizens from Canada, the US, and Mexico, getting together and drawing up a constitution for North America, which included a powerful president for whom we would all vote to lead us into the future for the sake of our liberty and security. All Hail the Chief.
Such an idea would receive a huge raspberry from left, right, and center. It seems crazy and ridiculous. But on what grounds? One person couldn’t possibly represent the interests of so many. A government ranging over such a huge territory would be unworkable. A president of North America might easily become a despot. Mainly, the very idea of such an institution seems to violate subsidiarity (better to decentralize than centralize) and Occam’s razor (we’ve already got a president).
Actually, most of us would see plainly what was taking place: some wacky people, well intended or not, were attempting to seize power. It would be absurd for us to just obey some guy because he claims, like Yertle the Turtle, to be “the ruler of all that I see.” If he managed to take power, we certainly would not hook our emotions to his words. He would not be able to “lift our spirits,” make us feel “malaise,” inspire us to dream or dread, or anything else. He would just be a guy with lots of power — way too much power.
When he died, we would be sad perhaps, if we liked him, or not sad, perhaps, if we didn’t. In any case, the implausibility of a headline that read “A Continent Mourns!” would be obvious enough. A continent cannot mourn; only individuals can. And those who would mourn the most would be those who had a direct interest in promoting the power and office that he held, and who otherwise stood to gain from manipulating his legacy to their own benefit. If the dead continental president were praised in godlike terms, we would similarly see through the insanity and ulterior motive.
It really should be no different with the president of the United States. Before the constitutional coup of 1787, we had no president, and the country managed just fine. Our “leaders” were the clergy, property owners, merchants, moms and dads. For those who loved politics, there were governors, and there were the Articles of Confederation that claimed to be perpetual but which everyone knew was nothing other than a nonbinding treaty among sovereign units.
A group of people who had personal, financial, and ideological interests got together a decade after the colonies seceded from Britain to create a new central government supposedly restrained by a constitution. The president, we were told, would be under suspicion, constantly watched and harassed by other statesmen and the people. So it should be concerning all men with power: they must rule in fear or they will rule in despotism.
The idea of a president worried those who believed in the ideals of the revolution. They were assured that he could not be a despot. He would be under the impeachment threat. He couldn’t do a thing without the Senate’s advice and consent. The Senate in turn was to be appointed by the state legislatures, which were the fundamental governing units in America. For that matter, if the states didn’t like something about the way the union was working out, they could always leave the union.
So went the original idea.
All these years later, we wake to the cultural equivalent of Mao’s China or Lenin’s Russia, in which the people are supposedly mourning the loss of the Great Leader who
“had faith, not just in his own gifts and his own future, but in the possibilities of every life. The cheerful spirit that carried him forward was more than a disposition; it was the optimism of a faithful soul, who trusted in God’s purposes, and knew those purposes to be right and true.”
Not only that:
“He was a providential man, who came along just when our nation and the world most needed him. And believing as he did that there is a plan at work in each life, he accepted not only the great duties that came to him, but also the great trials that came near the end.”
Those quotes happen to be from Cheney, but they might as well be from 1,000 other bubbleheads who are trying to outdo each other in their worshipful statements about this man. The level of piety goes way beyond what one normally accords the dead. No, this is not just an affectionate goodbye. This is a coronation in Heaven — an apotheosis — not so much to honor Ronald Reagan as a person, but to elevate the presidency as an institution and power as a means. So it is a legitimate time to discuss his legacy, which requires genuine objectivity.
If, for example, Reagan doubled the federal budget, he can’t be considered as a man who cut government. If he resisted every peace overture from the Russian leader for years before finally coming around (though not fully) at Reykjavik, he shouldn’t be called a man who ended the Cold War but a man who extended it by many years before it was no longer plausible to do so.
As for the spiritual cult surrounding Reagan, it is no different from that which surrounded Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Napoleon, or any forgotten Egyptian pharaoh.
Before you get too angry, notice what I wrote: the cult stems from the same origin (which is different from saying that Reagan is Mao). What is that origin? The Stockholm syndrome? Mass psychology? False consciousness? Ideological error? Probably some combination of the above.
No doubt the sentences above invite loads of protest email. Consider before you click whether you are really disputing a point of fact or whether you are trying to upbraid a heretic against the religion of our day, which is the worship of the state and its godhead, the democratically elected president.