20 April 2004

W: Our President

A new “type” in history: the autonomous follower

In George W. Bush, we have a president for whom reading a teleprompter seems to be a physical exertion. Each line accomplished brings out a panting breath of release. His best trait is his doggedness. Another man would have realized his failings and tried to do something about them. In W., his indifference to his deficiencies, his shameless attempts to do things for which he is unfitted—e.g. read, speak, lead a political community of any size—are, alongside his noble birth, his main strengths.

Character tells in public appearances. W. often looks confused. His brow tightens as if he were enduring some pain he can’t quite locate. It could be on his foot, in his bowel. But it is only the cost of speaking, or thinking, itself.

His underlip rises to cover its mate. His chin collapses his face from underneath, like the frozen mastication of the retarded. The chin thrust up is as much W.‘s characteristic expression as it was for Charcot’s lunatics. It signifies resolve, sorrow, dignity, and other absent affects. The two lines that emerge pointing downward between his eyebrows when he thinks he shows anger resemble the expression of the mute face of a baby, about to have a tantrum. They are the mimicry of anger in a stunted face.

W. is a close stander. He once allowed Brit Hume to interview him in prime-time, because his poll numbers were low. He showed America his golf putting, his dogs, his way of talking to children, his skill at sitting. You could see that even Brit Hume was nervous finding that Bush stands too close. In the absence of character, he tries to suck support from others in his proximity; as if he needed to assure himself their uprightness would keep him erect, within distance of touch. There is a certain warmth about W., to be sure—the same you find in the minor officer of the Elks, or the beadle in the church.

He is a tongue thruster. You see that little pink muscle flicker outwards between his pale lips frequently during a speech. It is like the gremlin soul that announces its presence, the unformed, fetus-like, moist juvenility inside the mannequin. It is present in the twitching of his foot, under the intervie wtable, like a podiatric cowlick.

As he nears the ends of his speeches, W. becomes complacent. You detect the flash of a spoiled grin. It indicates: “I got away with something.” W. is the curious figure who learned as a child to get away with things that weren’t rebellions.

W.‘s is the heroism of just functioning. Our leader has grown expert in his way. You can see him gradually become assured. This triumph over personal incoherence has given him the opportunity to ruin the economy, foreign relations, the environment, and cause the deaths of innocents. If you can manage to hold small things together, as W. has, then you can ruin the big things utterly.


It has come to our attention that some on the Left compare W. to Hitler. Nothing could be more wrong. It is an impossibility, a misreading of history.

No, it’s our embarrassing distinction in the United States today to be that rare country which acquired a follower as its leader. The younger Bush is an adherent. He is a Believer. You don’t picture him on the podium at Nuremberg. No, you see him in the third row of the crowd on the rally floor. Look for his face, there, among other sons of the elite! Witness our little man, W. His face shining with perspiration, he puts all his spirit into the regime salute. How smartly he swallows everything! For the Leader! For Homeland Security! (Für die Sicherheit der Heimat!)

When he wore his flight suit on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, he was being true to something deep inside him. It had to be a tight little outfit. It had to be a uniform he could zip right up the front. A statesman’s suit, a president’s garb, must feel wrong to him. He needs a crotch tightly cupped in nylon, secure as a flyer in someone else’s plane.

Could W. be a new type in history? Provisionally let us think of him as the “autonomous follower.”

In the old era of bureaucratic conformism, we all knew about the follower, the organization man. This functionary could commit acts of colossal ruination by following orders. Don’t we have a mental picture of this ninny, wrecking nations, laying waste to continents, executing criminals without a second thought, mistreating prisoners of war, and creating these vast pools of innocent victims, domestic and foreign, all because somebody higher up told him to? He was “only following orders.” That was an aspect of rationalized hierarchy. But W. is achieving all these same disasters without anyone giving him orders. He is, nominally, giving them. And yet he seems to be no Führer himself.

The man is not malevolent, you can tell that by looking at him. Retarded, yes, if retardation were a self-inflicted wound.

The curiosity of W. is that he does seem by all accounts to lead, that is, to make functional decisions that are not dictated to him, not by any single other person. He has his advisers, whose questions to him, answered on a principle of simplicity, become his doctrines. But the source of right? It is somewhere outside W., in his God or in his conception of good and evil. By keeping it outside of him, never doubting, he sheds its terrible nimbus onto the White House and the departments, and we get an administration that has merged politics with belief and separated it from thought.

The basis for existence of the autonomous follower is his belief in automatic action with no agent. Himself most of all, but all persons on the side of right, are only instruments of an order which is supposed already to have been finished.

Perhaps Father made it, speaking psychologically. Perhaps God made it, theologically. Perhaps his advisers know who made it, and will tell him. Perhaps the market set it in motion, ideologically. Perhaps “democracy,” which W. loves only in the guise of a vast instrumental mechanism, grinding across the globe, a teleology of the world-spirit—perhaps free markets and democracy made the order inevitable.

Freedom, the word W. uses most, is the word he understands least. His unconscious philosophy is necessitarian. Like his privileged childhood, like his unearned rise, like his slow-reflexes daily manner, like his geography in which countries are spoken of as single persons with personalities, his political philosophy develops first from the idea that everything needful is already given to him and to the world.

In this way he can take for granted that he is an instrument of good without being arrogant or ambitious. “I am a lowly sinner” he announces to his religious constituents, by which he reminds himself of his own exemption from responsibility and his redemption by divine unfreedom. He makes up orders that are assembled from the bric-a-brac of instruction, correction, remembered adage, childhood experiences, assumed laws, in a collection of string and paper trash. W. was corrected many, many times as a boy. Those corrections make his truth.

And you can see and hear it in every speech. It is what gives his face its extraordinary air of inexperience, of innocence. When W. addresses the bad guys to fix their punishment, and extols the decent people for the good things that will come to them—when he promises everything, regardless of reality, assuring his listeners they have nothing to fear, and nothing to pay, because nothing costs anything, in a world of final security where two plus two equals five—you must hear that W. is addressing himself, not America. He is catechizing himself.

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