Last year, I found myself going back to Bartlet.
In 2016, I began re-watching The West Wing on Netflix, for the same reasons everyone else started re-watching it: general nostalgia, now that a whole decade had passed since the show went off the air; the attendant hoopla to commemorate this ten-year anniversary (including a slew of interviews with the cast and the very excellent West Wing Weekly podcast); and most importantly, sheer escape.
Like many people, I retreated to the safe confines of the fictional Josiah “Jed” Bartlet White House because the promise — and now, fulfillment — of the very real Donald Trump White House was just too damn disheartening and depressing to bear.
Not that the two terms of President Bartlet (played brilliantly by Martin Sheen) were Camelot-like. From assassination attempts to congressional censures to kidnappings to health scares to lots of tense moments in the Situation Room that I never completely understood, Bartlet’s presidency was definitely eventful, if not outright tumultuous.
Still, no one could deny the commitment and compassion of the folks who worked in this fictional West Wing. As the character Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) once said, “The people that I have met have been extraordinarily qualified. Their intent is good, their commitment is true. They are righteous, and they are patriots.”
Somehow, I can’t see myself ever using any of those terms to describe the members of the current administration.
Moreover, the occupants of the two Oval Offices (“real” and fictional) — Trump and President Bartlet — could not be more opposite. Trump, who ran as a Republican, has no prior political experience; President Bartlet, a Democrat, is a (yes, fictional) member of the House of Representatives and the Governor of New Hampshire. Trump once claimed, “I am very high educated. I know words. I have the best words” (including, of course, his favorite, “bigly”); President Bartlet has a Ph.D., a Nobel Prize in Economics, and a legitimately extensive vocabulary. Trump wants to build a wall; President Bartlet, in the pilot episode, declares his admiration for 137 Cuban refugees who weathered a storm to seek asylum in America. Trump uses rhetoric to condemn and strike fear; President Bartlet wants to inspire and inform. President Bartlet seeks advice from smart people who disagree with him, while Trump calls those who challenge him “enemies” and dispensers of “fake news”. You get the idea.
And yet, Trump and President Bartlet do have at least two things in common. First, they both have a little problem with truth-telling. Of course, Trump’s advancement of “alternative facts” is already legendary. But even the legacy of President Bartlet is marred by a whopper of a deception; namely, not disclosing to the public, when he was first running for president, that he had multiple sclerosis. (At least President Bartlet acknowledged he was wrong; Trump would never stoop so low as to make such an admission.)
But they share something else in common as well: both Trump and President Bartlet have a God-complex.
Now, Trump’s extreme narcissism is well-documented; some may say it’s his defining quality. But President Bartlet? He can’t have a God-complex. He’s a devout, God-fearing Catholic, right?
Well, yes… most of the time. “President Bartlet” famously quoted the Bible, chapter and verse, while verbally shellacking a homophobic talk show host. (“Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7,” the President cited. “If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football?”); he grasped rosary beads and consulted his childhood priest as he agonized over whether to commute the death sentence of a murderer; and he once revealed he was going to become a priest himself until he met his wife, Abbey.
(To be fair, Trump is obviously a pretty religious guy as well. After all, he once claimed, “Nobody reads the Bible more than me.” Naturally. After all, Trump trumps everyone else at pretty much everything, as revealed in a Washington Post article entitled, “19 things Donald Trump knows better than anyone else, according to Donald Trump”. The article stitches together Trump’s own proclamations of his peerless knowledge, on topics as varied as taxes, ISIS, and Facebook.)
In short, though he once told his wife, “Oh, like I’m not already going to hell,” (“War Crimes, Episode 6, Season 3), President Bartlet is generally a pretty devoted disciple. However, at times, President Bartlet steps over the line, from worshipping God to assuming the immense power of his office makes him God-like. For example, in the second episode of The West Wing, after an American plane is shot down, a steeled President Bartlet promises to attack the perpetrators “with the fury of God’s own thunder”; in the next episode, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) talks him down, warning him against “using American military strength as the arm of the Lord.” In the second season’s finalé, “Two Cathedrals”, President Bartlet actually calls out God in the National Cathedral: “To hell with Your punishments,” he hisses,”I was Your servant here on Earth. And I spread Your word and did Your work. To hell with Your punishments. To hell with You.” (Incidentally, he says this in Latin; writer Aaron Sorkin claimed he wanted Jed Bartlet to talk to God in God’s own language.)
But at no point is President Bartlet’s God-complex made more apparent than in the pilot episode of The West Wing. Very late in the episode, a heated debate between senior staffers and members of the religious right leads to a discussion of the Ten Commandments. When one of the religious righters curiously asks, “So what is the First Commandment?”, an authoritative voice booms from off-screen: “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt worship no other God before me.”
Of course, President Bartlet is quoting the First Commandment. But by speaking in the first-person, he is seemingly declaring that he — the President of the United States of America — is God.
Now, The West Wing creator and head scribe Sorkin never used the term “God-complex” during his four seasons with the series. However, Sorkin did use the term in his screenplay for the 1993 movie Malice. In the film, Alec Baldwin’s character (yes, the same Alec Baldwin who plays an uncanny Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live) makes a memorable speech, which concludes with the following: “You ask me if I have a God-complex. Let me tell you something. I am God.” The name of Baldwin’s character: Dr. Jed Hill. (Hollywood and politics — both are small worlds.) The fact that Baldwin now lampoons Trump on SNL underscores not only the cross-pollination of Hollywood and politics but also the difficulty our first Reality TV president has distinguishing the two worlds. Just recently, in his now infamous Saturday morning tweet-torrent, Trump accused President Obama of wiretapping his phones before moving on to other pressing matters of State; that is, berating Arnold Schwarzenegger for his performance on Celebrity Apprentice.)
While Sorkin does famously recycle names, the fact that he had already created a character named Jed who boasted “I am God” could lend credence to the argument that President Jed Bartlet also has a deep-rooted God-complex.
One could make the case (or at least make the case that Sorkin was making the case with The West Wing) that any person who assumes the mantle of President of the United States would develop a God-complex. Indeed, how could any human being not let that kind of power — the “my-playbook-involves-a-nuclear-football” kind of power — go to his head? Heck, gracing the rotunda of the Capitol building in Washington D.C., there’s a painting by Constantino Brumidi called The Apotheosis of Washington, which depicts our first president literally rising to Heaven. How can anyone who has served as president not be taken in by that? But there are key differences between the God-complexes of President Bartlet and Trump.
For one thing, Jed Bartlet is a good man who developed a God-complex because he was president; Donald Trump ran for president because of his existing God-complex.
Why else would Trump still care about the alleged five million “illegal” voters from November’s election? Why, during the first few weeks of his presidency, would he keep insisting his inauguration crowds were the biggest in history? ? It’s because he feels threatened when facts cast shade upon his imagined greatness. Given how he conducts himself (and his tweets), it appears that Trump honestly believes that, as President, he is the Lord our God, and no person, rally, or true news story can eclipse him.
Also, unlike President Bartlet, Trump has not just a God-complex — he has a messianic complex. In a recent PopMatters article, “Believe Me! Trumpism and the Messianic Impulse”, Iain Ellis shows Trump’s messianic complex at work when he thunders away at rallies “modeled on revival tent meetings” or deftly turns all criticisms into “acts of persecution.” (For example, Trump once claimed the IRS audits him precisely because he’s a “strong Christian”.)
Finally, Trump’s messianic complex is perfectly encapsulated in his most memorable and self-aggrandizing line from his acceptance speech at last summer’s Republican National Convention: “I alone can fix this.”
Fortunately, America still has systems in place to ensure that even messiahs have limitations: pesky courts in several US states are challenging Trump’s Muslim Ban 2.0; Mexico doesn’t seem keen on shelling out $20 billion for a wall, and even some Republican acolytes aren’t responding appropriately to Trump’s bully pulpit tactics about repealing Obamacare. Trump can beat his tiny fists against those glass walls all he wants, but the walls aren’t shattering anytime soon. Apparently, he alone
Trump is just now learning that the United States of America has a judiciary branch, which checks the power of the president
As it turns out, this humanizing, this de-apotheosizing, of the American presidency was depicted by none other than Sorkin, in the pilot of The West Wing. As I mentioned, the first words we hear spoken by President Bartlet in the series are “I am the Lord thy God.” But initially we only hear these words; he says them off-screen. When we ultimately see the president for the first time, he’s using a cane, due to an injury sustained when he rode his bicycle into a tree. (Later in the series, President Bartlet will again use a cane, because of his multiple sclerosis, but at this point, viewers don’t know about his MS. Even Sorkin didn’t “realize” he had MS until the 12th episode of Season 1.)
So, our first look at this fictional president presents a man saying “I am the Lord thy God” while hobbling around with a cane. He may think he’s divine, but he’s limited, imperfect, flawed – and very human. I have often wondered if Sorkin was using this initial depiction of his fictional commander-in-chief to make a statement about American presidents in general: they may be among the most powerful people on the planet, but they’re not gods. They’re not all-powerful. As citizens, we should keep that in mind.
Presidents should, too.