Guest opinion: The Presidential Spectacle

Gaining public support as a candidate and maintaining it as President relies heavily on something called the “presidential spectacle,” which aids in portraying what’s known as the “single executive image” in the public imagination. In other words, there are certain rituals, actions, and behaviors typical to an operation seeking to portray someone as “presidential,” in command, and in control.   

The reality of the modern presidency is one of a multi-layered, multi-faceted, and quite expansive institution, one that any given President will spend most of their efforts to corral and bend to their will (to say nothing of their lack of control of the other branches of government). But the image in the public’s eyes is that they’ve elected one individual who represents their hopes and wishes and, thusly empowered, has all control, ability, and capacity to enact them.

Because the gulf between expectation and reality is so vast, Presidents increasingly rely on this idea of presidential spectacle. Any given administration is as much, or more, concerned with bending reality to fit narratives of strength and control as it is with actually accomplishing a governing agenda.  

The spectacle often begins with the crafting of a compelling narrative in the presidential campaign. As candidates step forward, they present their reasons for running for office. They, of course, mention policy and ideology, but they usually take secondary importance to the story they’re trying to tell the American people. Inasmuch as policy is important, it’s as a narrative device to further the story. 

For example, Barack Obama had major policy objectives to revitalize the health care industry and recover the economy. But his narrative was one of hope and of restoring American confidence in their government. Americans came to not necessarily support his policy objectives so much as they embraced his narrative and his story in the campaign, and his supporters accepted his policy objectives as part of the story he told.  

Similarly, Donald Trump’s major campaign ideas were to build a border wall and ban immigration for Muslim countries. His supporters supported these policies, but only as plot devices in the narrative Trump wove, namely that Americans were losing the country and he would be their champion in “Making America Great Again.”   

In both of these instances, Americans did not actually decide whose policies they supported and then moved to support the candidates. Instead, they chose whether or not to embrace the narratives of the candidates, and then they moved to support the policies as a by-product of embracing the story of their candidate of choice.  

Candidates and presidents can build their narratives and gain disciples for their stories by engaging in specific forms of spectacle. They make each speech, rally, address, and policy victory or failure a plot point in their story.   

Even though President Obama’s agenda was derailed by Republicans taking control of Congress, he was able to use them as a foil in his story, portraying them as enemies of hope and optimism as they pessimistically stood in the way of his attempts to champion those positive ideals.   

Similarly, even as President Trump faced pressures from the Democratic-controlled House and from media agencies that fact-checked his false claims and engaged in wall-to-wall negative coverage of his administration, he was able to maintain the rabid support of his base by spinning these forces into anti-American efforts that sought to thwart the will of the people. For Trump supporters, Democrats were more than just the opposition party; they were traitors. For Trump supporters, the media weren’t just biased news agencies; they were “fake news” and the “enemies of the people.”   

In the instances of both the Obama and Trump administrations, we witnessed presidencies that remained popular among their strongest adherents even in the face of powerlessness in the halls of government. This was due to the success of spectacles and the ability to craft the narrative and tell a story.  

And, perhaps the most significant advantage modern Presidents have in engaging in spectacle and projecting the single executive image is the sheer distance between Presidents and their supporters. Crucially, this distance makes it even easier for a President to cushion themselves against negative opinions of their mistakes. The spin cycle, as they say, is set to high in modern politics.  

Both President Obama and President Trump had especially rabid support from certain segments of the population. Many activists totally committed themselves to “their” President. They spent their waking days doing everything they could to support them, without having ever met the person they maniacally supported, having a conversation with them, or even really getting to know them in any personal way.   

Having spoken to supporters of Barack Obama during his administration and supporters of Donald Trump even just recently (and even with everything that has happened), it’s grown clear to me that what they support is often the image that has been crafted and perpetuated through friendly media, and not necessarily the person as they actually are.   

Barack Obama’s supporters and favorable media coverage heralded him as a political genius, a gifted and astounding rhetorical mastermind, and a young, optimistic voice that could bring hope and change to US politics. But he was far from new to the political scene. As a community organizer, politics was his main forte. While he was aspirational, he was inexperienced in Washington. He could deliver a prepared speech quite well, but absent a teleprompter he would sometimes stutter over his words and came across as a policy wonk, far less able to communicate with ordinary Americans. Many Obama supporters, were they to spend a day with the man they adore, might come away disappointed that the man is not the same as the image of the man.  

And Donald Trump compounds this reality seven-fold. The image built up by his supporters almost has no reflection in the facts of the life Donald Trump led before he ran for President. Many of his supporters go so far as to claim he was God’s appointed President to save the nation and restore it to a Christian image. This is a strange image to place upon someone who has cheated on his wife, spoke disparagingly of women, publicly admitted he’s never asked forgiveness of God for anything, is vulgar and unforgiving, has appeared in pornography, and, both in public and in private, is a petty and angry man. I would gander that most Trump supporters would spend a day with him and come away not only disappointed but shocked and angry at who he actually is.  

But, putting the ideas of presidential spectacle and single executive image aside, perhaps the real question we need to ask is: is all of this the result of the efforts of presidents and their advisers to craft their story, forge their narrative, and project the single executive image, or have Americans simply come to a point where they place too many of their hopes and dreams in their presidents? Have Americans come to invest so much of their anxiety in the presidents they support that they have become mentally incapable of dealing with criticism of “their” President, to the point presidents gain “Teflon strength” with their bases?   

All I know is, Americans across the political spectrum would do well to understand the use of presidential spectacle by those who campaign for and occupy the presidency. They could benefit greatly from becoming better insulated from projecting qualities upon candidates and presidents and investing so emotionally into them if they understood that the single executive image is a house of narratives floating on thin air. 

Justin Stapley is a student at Utah Valley University and a research assistant at UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies,