To be the “leader of the free world” is quite a title, at any stretch. The role of US President, at least since 1945 or so, maintains a strange quasi-God-like presence in the global psyche: venerated and respected – feared – by people everywhere. That’s what you get when power is so concentrated in the hands of one person, in the country which holds most of the world’s power and capital.
Many Americans themselves play their part in maintaining this admiration. Star-spangled portraits of the president are a more common mantelpiece placement in US households than, say, Boris Johnson’s face in all its unkempt glory placed on a tea-stained side table in this green and pleasant land. The Prime Minister just doesn’t have the same market appeal to the masses as the President does – it’s a more human role, and (although begrudgingly it may not seem so effective right now) one more vulnerable to pub-talk scrutiny.
There’s a very simple reason for this distinction: the monarch is our divine archetype, not the Prime Minister. Queen Elizabeth is the figure in the UK that receives the veneration that the US President does, and it would be nonsense for this to be shared with the PM.
But why should the President get the same treatment as the Queen? The President does not have the history that the Queen rides upon the coattails of; it is also a role knee-deep in the everyday politics that the monarch is considered above. Moreover, Presidents do not serve until they die – eight years is a pittance in comparison with the nearly 70-year rule Elizabeth II has enjoyed.
It comes down to the way we organise power in our two countries. We all recognise that in both the US and the UK there are three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judiciary. However, there’s another, a fourth ‘symbolic’ branch, that maintains the narrative that the President and the monarch are the heaven-on-earth figureheads they are seen to be. This branch the British monarch has alone maintained since Walpole, whilst the President blends it with the role of the executive.
It makes sense that the US has carved their President to fit this role. For centuries, going back to the Egyptians, human society has always been organised into hierarchies (or so the school books say) with a figurehead representing God on Earth at the top. It’s as if after generations of this tradition, the Founding Fathers couldn’t help but recreate their own God-in-political-flesh after breaking away from the British monarch.
America has constructed a narrative for itself whereby each new President must shape themselves into a monarch-like mould for a number of years, a narrative that is upheld by rituals such as the First Family, the grandiosity of the inauguration ceremony, and the neoclassical architectural design of the White House and other D.C. landmarks. Their First Family finds congruence with our Royal Family; their inauguration ceremony, our coronations; and the architecture naturally shares the imposing nature of Buckingham Palace, but also the style we unconsciously associate with ancient Roman emperors.
So perhaps this means that it is not an individual human President who becomes the symbolic branch of government, rather the role of President. This means the symbolic, divine power that courses through the blood of the British monarchy is democratically transferred every term. However, the American system does maintain some close similarities with the British monarchy that suggests that when unlimited power is grasped by a President, it is hard for these individuals to let go.
This is clear when we consider how the US has developed its own dynastical families, members of whom often reach positions of power: Adams, Harrison, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush, Clinton, and (if Michelle’s running for the Presidency is really on the cards) Obama. Of course, these mock-dynasties are not as pervasive as the Royal Family, but it’s food for thought, nonetheless.
Further, that Presidents are referred to as ‘Mr President’ even after their term(s) in office has ended is also a structure that contributes towards this myth-building. It’s a strange tradition reminiscent of the ‘Royal Highness’ address we Brits award our First Family throughout their lives.
That the role of the US President has garnered monarchical significance is not necessarily part of some big, elaborate conspiracy to keep power in the hands of the few. Perhaps it is human nature to raise a select few within a hair’s breadth of God. Or, perhaps, we’ve been socialised to believe monarch-like power is the best way to organise society.
Either way, it’s interesting to observe that this phenomenon has happened, both materially and symbolically, and that whilst the monarch remains the symbolic power of the UK, the PM will never ascend to the primacy of the President in our political consciousnesses.
Illustration: Adeline Zhao