Of course, this is a tired, old show, riddled with shopworn devices, performed by a rotating cast of hacks. Ronald Reagan set the fool's gold standard of a president playacting the role of populist, matinee hero -- Clinton, Bush, and Obama all learned from him -- as, all the while, he, in reality, went about the business of protecting and enhancing the holdings of the moneyed elite.
In Reagan's case, this con game was both an act of inspired career advancement and banal casuistry. Reagan, b-grade actor that he was, was never deep enough to harbor any belief he wasn't paid to evince. By professional necessity, he convinced himself he believed those bright and shining lies and polished platitudes he pitched to a public of credulous marks; for this is the mode of mind of effective salesmen and good showmen ... having the ability to conflate shallow self interest with the good of all.
Such self-deception -- played out as public legerdemain and state stagecraft -- is now the modus operandi of media age presidencies. The effect of this transformation, from executive gravitas to virtual playacting, has been somewhat less than salubrious for the health of the republic. When, for example, an American city drowns in floodwater and Americans are drowning in economic woes, US presidents know how to act like a president -- but not act as president. The soundbites make the man; not the man makes the soundbites.
Thus far, Obama's role has been to front the status quo. Whose interest do you think he had in mind when he picked Larry Summers and Tim Geithner as his top economic advisors? Hint: not those who clutch a subway strap nor sit stranded in freeway traffic, in bank-financed motor vehicles, on their daily commute to and from work.
Presidents, as is the case with all people, internalize the social and cultural architecture of their times. Reagan, the actor, had to find a way to believe what movie industry scriptwriters and film directors wanted from him insofar as the creation of character -- and, during the cold war and McCarthy era witchhunts, when G.E. and other defense industry giants started writing his checks (after his movie career died a lackluster death) he performed his role as resolute cold warrior as requested. And he, as has every president since, became a shill and enabler of the national security state.
Barack Obama's transformation from progressive hope-monger to status quo water-carrier should not come as a shock. It would be nearly impossible for the US populace, chief executives included, not to have internalized the tenets of the corporate capitalist/consumer empire. This corporate structure is as pervasive internally as it is extant. It exists as both outer architecture and inner psychological imprinting. Therefore, corporatism is as real to us as the deep forests and its woodland gods were to European pagans and The Church and its dogma was to the peasants of the Dark and Middle Ages.
The circumstances of the present era, like the ancient belief in the acts of self-involved gods whose doings were heedless to the fate of mere mortals, are larger than us and will not cede to our demands to behave with compassion or even sanity. To name but one example: The earth's oceans are suffering, many oceanographers say dying, due to the death cult calculus of runaway capitalism. In essence, we are confronted by a situation in which we experience abject powerlessness. An aura of unease and anomie prevails.
This unease contributes to a desperate fantasy of the presidency as deus ex machina. The right's deification of Reagan cast the fantasy into the realm of bughouse raving: The dead president as savor zombie. The belief that Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet Union with 1940's era movie jibes and bromides is such a preposterous fantasy ... that it evokes one of my own: Ronald Reagan, endlessly imprisoned in a soundbite loop in Hell, throwing back his shoulders, doing that portrayal of manly resolve he wore out during his time in office ... then bandying into the indifference of eternity, this variation of his patented platitude, "Mr. Devil, tear down this wall of fire."
What is the emotional toil taken by the reality that in life, unlike theatre, there will be no sudden plot reversal brought about by a device of deus ex machina? In these desperate imaginings, we demand our president both lay on hands to heal the wounds inflicted by capitalism and smite our perceived enemies abroad. We insist he be not only a steely eyed warrior-king but our collective killer Christ.
Democratic presidents, and their handlers and advisers, become possessed of this errant archetype as well. Hence, according to the fantasy, to be viable as commander-in-chief, they are driven to prove their toughness, preferably, in some he-man display of resolute stupidity. They must prove they have a pair of killer/redeemer god balls -- which might be termed, Christesticles -- by bombing somebody -- anybody. At present, it appears this fraternity of hubris-blinded killer clowns has Iran in their cross hairs.
The act of imagining enemies serves as distraction from the angst arising from the vast economic inequities of life in the contemporary US. This is the good versus evil, dramatic conventions of the children's theatre of our politics: We boo the villains -- and are instructed to clap our hands to bring about an intervention by supernatural forces ... In this case, in the form of an action hero/magical being to do our killing: a deity -- who is part Tinker Bell, part predator drone.
But our situation is closer to that of the flawed protagonists in Waiting For Godot -- Samuel Becket's brilliant take on the self-deception at work within the alienated hearts of those who believe their suffering will be assuaged by the arrival of a god-like being. The last lines and final stage instructions of the play are emblematic of the Obama presidency:
VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let's go.
(Stage direction: They do not move.)
1 | 2