In Oliver Stone’s fever-dream Nixon, the embattled president stands in front of the famous portrait of the martyr John F. Kennedy, which he addresses with a mix of bitterness, self-pity, and awe: “When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.” That is exactly right. As the American presidency becomes ever-more caesaropapist — even as the government over which the chief magistrate presides becomes ever-more dysfunctional — the presidency is no longer about what we used to conventionally understand as politics. Instead, the president has become a totem, an object of popular veneration who supposedly embodies who we are.
The progressive mourning of the passing of the Obama era is rarely if ever about policies or decisions coming out of the Oval Office but about what progressives thought they saw of themselves in the mirror of his public persona: “President Barack Obama, a model of grace, dignity, and class, will be missed”; “The Obamas were a master class in dignity and civility”; “I will remember President Obama for his dignity”; “We’ll miss grace, dignity of Obama family.”
The people to whom Democrats condescend express similar feelings about Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, who are lionized for standing up to that condescension.