Washington, Trump, and Cults of Personality

American democracy began by rejecting one potential strongman. Protecting it requires rejecting another.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters after a rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile on Aug 21, 2015.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters after a rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile on Aug 21, 2015. Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Anyone who reads the news is used to hearing that U.S. President Donald Trump’s behavior is unprecedented, after nearly four years of scandals and chaos. Less remarked on is that his cult of personality actually has historical precedent. Ironically, that’s even more reason to worry.

Americans like to think of themselves as the world’s most freedom-loving people, but they’ve fantasized about deliverance through a godlike leader—an “I alone can fix it” figure, as Trump boasted—at least once before. Before Trump, the United States’ closest brush with despotism came in 1783, just after the country won independence from Britain. The conventional wisdom at the time was that General George Washington, the hero of the Revolutionary War, was so popular that he could overthrow the weak national government if he wished to do so.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to dismiss a Washington dictatorship as an absurd counterfactual. But it certainly didn’t seem far-fetched at the time. While the founding generation fought for freedom and knew its opposite under British rule, their “give me liberty or give me death” bravado co-existed with a powerful nostalgia for a more familiar, hierarchical kind of authority. “O Washington, how I do love thy name! How have I often adored and blessed thy God, for creating and forming thee, the great ornament of humankind!” exclaimed one breathless admirer the year the war ended.

And those weren’t the words of some 18th-century “deplorable.” The writer was Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale, and his effusiveness was representative of the intense pro-Washington sentiment found throughout the new country. (Yale’s rival Harvard had set a high bar for flattery by giving Washington an honorary doctorate at the outset of the war, before his soldiers fired a single shot).

Washington worship ran wide and deep. The first Black person to publish a book of poetry in the United States, an enslaved woman in Boston named Phillis Wheatley, described Washington in regal terms: “A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine / With gold unfading, Washington! Be thine.” The former colonists sang “God Save Great Washington” to the melody of “God Save the King.” They named ships and children in his honor, and when the statues of George III came down, Washington went up in the despised monarch’s place.

In terms of popularity, he had contemporaries but no peers, even amongst his fellow Founding Fathers. The power of that cult-like appeal was clear—as was the implicit risk that he might exploit it for personal gain. When the moment came, would Washington reaffirm his republican ideals? Or would he reveal a lust for power and become an American Caesar or Cromwell?

If he had, it would have disappointed many, pleased some, and surprised few. Indeed, George III reportedly mused that Washington would be “the greatest man in the world” if he simply retired from leadership right after the war, though such conduct would have been contrary to the traditions of military victory.

Of course, that’s exactly what Washington did. First, he shamed a group of his own officers contemplating a coup against the new government. Then, after peace was struck with the British, he appeared before Congress to “surrender into their hands the trust committed to me… I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence—a diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task.” His humility created the space for self-government.

The catch is that, unlike Trump—who has repeatedly raised questions about whether he would step down after losing an election and told a neofascist group to “stand by” during the first presidential debate—Washington never conspired against democracy. His commitment to the “Glorious Cause” of American liberty was unshakable. The risk in the 1780s flowed in the opposite direction: from the bottom up rather than the top down. By exalting their hero in the symbols and language of monarchy, America’s former British subjects exposed their ambivalence about giving up a political order based on “great” men. Their republicanism was imperfect.

So, apparently, is modern Americans’. Trump’s betting that attacking his own civil servants, delegitimizing rivals, undermining the public’s confidence in mail-in voting during a pandemic, refusing to say that he’ll accept the results of November’s election, and blustering about staying in the White House past a second term will energize Republican voters who see each outrage as a step toward a national redemption that only he can bring. When people put loyalty to a savior above common sense, they’re in the thrall of a personality cult.

Washington’s response to idolization was self-denial. Trump’s is self-aggrandizement. That difference could have profound consequences: There was nothing inevitable about the American people choosing democracy nearly two and a half centuries ago, and there’s nothing inevitable about keeping it today.

Zack Wasserman is the chief strategy officer at Via and has a PhD in history from Yale.

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