In this context, it is clear that Washington is something more than “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” and by no means “first among equals.” Primus inter pares had been a sufficient dignity for Augustus and Constantine, but after his apotheosis, George Washington was something more, a spiritual king who established the president as the central dramatic figure in American life. With his sword and his military regalia, Washington is the commander in chief who calls to mind the Romans’ word for that position: imperator, from which our word “emperor” is derived.
As such, it was inevitable that Washington should develop divine powers, which he did in the context of his mythology. While Brumidi was hard at work on his Apotheosis of Washington, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Amid the inevitable emotional outpouring for the national martyr were works of art in the now-familiar style, including a carte de visite by an unknown artist depicting the apotheosis of President Lincoln, who is welcomed to the hereafter not by winged Fame or Minerva but by George Washington himself, in the role of deity, who embraces Lincoln while crowning him with laurel. It’s a political picture that suggests both the communion of democratic saints and an apostolic presidential succession.
It is, to my mind and to the minds of all sane people, much easier to understand the quasi-religious veneration of George Washington than it is to understand the popular cult of Donald Trump. But the principle is the same, and the error is the same. Idolatry is idolatry, even when it is Washington above the altar. There will never be order in our political culture until the presidency is put in its proper place — which is not God’s place.