By the mid-eighteenth-century, the absolutist system of monarchy painstakingly constructed during the reign of Louis XIV was showing serious signs of decay.
Undoubtedly, humiliations in foreign policy, domestic grain shortages, and clashes with the landed nobility all served to discredit the regime of the Sun King’s hapless successor. But decades before the national debt crisis that precipitated the revolutionary overthrow of the monarchy, the French state was already facing a catastrophic loss of legitimacy personified by the royal figurehead himself. Domestic failures and military defeats notwithstanding, Louis XV’s private life and sexual indiscretions also became the stuff of eighteenth-century tabloid fodder. The personal compounding the political, the king increasingly lacked the capacity to project the aura of divinity from which the country’s entire system of government drew its authority — gradually withdrawing from the public rites and religious ceremonies that consecrated his rule.
After 1739, when his mistresses became visible at court, Louis discontinued the long-standing practice of touching people with scrofula. By 1750, he had ceased to attend grand masses or conduct ceremonial entrées to Paris. Literally and figuratively, the king had lost the royal touch, and with it a critical link to the people he ruled. In subsequent decades, the process of desacralization was accelerated by a boom in subversive literature that denigrated the royal court and depicted leading figures like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as sexually depraved perverts. Amid intellectual ferment, economic stagnation, and unrelenting political turmoil, French subjects, as historian Sarah Maza puts it, experienced an “acute sense of moral void and social dissolution,” feeling “dangerously adrift in a world” without its “traditional sacred center.”
At precisely the moment its ability to competently execute basic state functions was thrown into crisis, the symbolic legitimacy of the Bourbon dynasty — and the system over which it presided — had collapsed.
The Presidential Aura
“He became president of the United States in that moment, period . . . For people who had been hoping he would become unifying, hoping that he might find some way to become presidential, they should be happy with that moment.”
The occasion was late February 2017, and Donald J. Trump, former host of TV’s The Apprentice, had just given his inaugural State of the Union address in his newly assumed role as president of the United States. The remark, belonging to liberal CNN commentator and former Obama administration special adviser Van Jones, referred to a moment in the speech when Trump had recognized a Navy SEAL killed during a raid in Yemen and paid tribute to his attending widow.
Insipid pundit babble though it was, Jones’s comment nevertheless had an accidental eloquence in context. The Yemen operation had, after all, been Trump’s first as commander in chief of America’s military. In addition to costing SEAL William Ryan Owens his life, fourteen people dubbed “militants” by authorities at the Pentagon had been killed alongside some ten women and children. Worse still, at least from the point of view of some mainstream commentators, the raid had been deemed a military failure, and Trump had off-loaded responsibility for Owens’s death onto his generals.
In applauding the president’s tribute, Jones was thus signaling his relief that, in spite of everything, the country’s unlikely new leader could look sufficiently “presidential” to preside over imperial slaughter, then varnish the act with treacly jingoism on national TV. Having decried the result of November’s election as a “whitelash against a changing country,” Jones would now attempt to take solace from his own strained assurance that, however fleetingly, Trump appeared capable of executing the symbolic function demanded of a US president.
Notwithstanding Jones’s justly mocked comment, Trump never succeeded in projecting the “presidential” aura that so many traumatized denizens of official Washington hoped for in the administration’s early months. Playing to his political strengths, Trump has happily continued the postmodern carnival barker routine he first pioneered on network TV, eagerly insulting opponents, attacking supposedly nonpartisan figures, and transgressing against norms of civility on a daily basis. (To the particular ire of his liberal and centrist critics, he has even continued to binge-watch cable news and tweet in his own now-iconic vernacular.)
Before and since the 2016 election, the threat posed by Trump to the office and reputation of the presidency has been a major preoccupation driving the bipartisan backlash against him, with moral and ideological outrage revealingly taking a back seat to the endless fixation with his personality and temperament. Both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, two of Trump’s loudest and least effective political opponents, opted to make character the central theme of their campaigns, and their defeats somehow did little to dissuade others from emulating their approach. Though the relentless incompetence of Trump’s mainstream opponents is certainly one explanation, another is that America’s elite implicitly recognizes the symbolic disruption wrought by his continued presence in the Oval Office.
As the symbol that consecrates the American political order, the presidency necessarily draws on myths that must be maintained for its semiotic function to persist: myths of personal virtue, technocratic competence, democratic equality, and, above all, a culture defined by meritocracy in which the very best inevitably rise to the top. Though mainstream outrage toward Trump often expresses itself in the language of propriety, a major subtext has always been a sense that the presidency will be diminished — his capture of the office working to overturn each and every one of its foundational myths.
Technocratic competence? Before 2016, Trump had never wielded political power and had far more crash-and-burn enterprises under his belt than genuine successes. Democratic equality? Trump visibly relishes hierarchy and partly became famous by theatrically telling people, “You’re fired!” on national TV. Personal virtue? His private life had been the stuff of tabloid fodder for decades, and a more cruelly vindictive person can scarcely be imagined outside the realm of fiction. Tying it all together, Trump has exposed the lie of meritocracy in twenty-first-century America by demonstrating that wealth does, in fact, supersede everything else — talent, professionalism, and personal virtue are not actually prerequisites for those in high office.
If the country’s imperial figurehead can really be this transparent huckster of a man, the average person may start to wonder whether the whole thing is a con. As Jodi Dean wrote in 2016:
Donald Trump cuts through the ideological haze of American politics and exposes its underlying truth . . . Where other candidates appeal to a fictitious unity or pretense of moral integrity, he displays the power of inequality. Money buys access — why deny it? . . . This expression demonstrates the truth of economic inequality: civility is for the middle class, a normative container for the rage of the dispossessed and the contempt of the dispossessors. The .1 % need not pretend to care.
The symbolic disruption wrought by Trump thus expresses the wider crisis of a society whose structuring myths have grown increasingly distant from its lived realities for all but a privileged few. Faced with imperial decline, faltering living standards, cultural polarization, economic crisis, and ossified political institutions, American elites have continued to offer the same old fables of national exceptionalism and a brighter future awaiting just over the nearest horizon. In the figure of Joe Biden, Democrats, liberals, and their conservative allies hope to restore a pristine image to the office tarnished by Donald Trump, incorrectly holding him to be the cause of the country’s ills rather than a mere symptom of them.
Should Biden prevail on November 3, he may briefly assume the symbolic aura demanded by America’s bipartisan establishment. Certain to take office in a country even sicker than the one that produced Donald Trump, the sheen is unlikely to last for long.