The Biden-Trump rematch reflects a democratic system in terminal decline

Is this the twilight of the cultish mythology of so-called "Great Men"?

By Peter Bloom / Common Dreams

As the United States barrels towards another presidential election pitting Joe Biden against Donald Trump, a somber reality is setting in for many observers: despite the stark differences between the two men and their visions for America, their rematch represents a broader shift in how democracy functions in the 21st century. Increasingly, elections have become competitions between the ambitions and personalities of individual “great men” rather than contests of ideas or visions for society.

This phenomenon reflects a contemporary belief in the outsized power of elite individuals—whether CEOs, celebrities, or political leaders—to drive change and shape the world around them. It’s a worldview that has its roots in neoliberal ideology but has morphed into something more extreme: a “cult of personality” that justifies massive inequality and the consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of a small oligarchic class.

The recent Trump-Biden debate served as a grotesque apotheosis of “great man” politics, laying bare the dangerous fallacy of entrusting democracy to the outsized personalities of flawed individuals. What viewers witnessed was not a substantive exchange of ideas, but a sad spectacle of two men desperately clinging to the illusion of their own indispensability.

Trump, the self-styled political outsider, once again displayed his mastery of demagoguery. His performance was a masterclass in manipulative rhetoric, weaving lies and exaggerations to inflame passions and sow doubt. This wasn’t leadership, but a naked display of ego—a man willing to risk democratic norms and institutions to maintain his grip on power and protect his wealth.

The recent Trump-Biden debate served as a grotesque apotheosis of “great man” politics, laying bare the dangerous fallacy of entrusting democracy to the outsized personalities of flawed individuals.

Opposite him, Biden struggled to articulate coherent responses, his words often faltering and confused. The toll of age was unmistakable, raising uncomfortable questions about his fitness for office. Yet Biden’s insistence on seeking reelection, despite these obvious challenges, betrays the same hubris that drives Trump – a belief that he alone can guide the nation through troubled waters.

This debate didn’t showcase great men rising to meet history’s challenges. Instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of personality-driven politics. Here were two deeply flawed individuals, propped up by cults of personality, vying for the right to single-handedly shape America’s future.

In its most degenerate form, as we’re witnessing now, this results in the sad spectacle of a democratic election devolving into little more than the narcissistic desire of two powerful old men to cling to power and relevance, even as they and the system they represent show clear signs of terminal decline.

The Roots of “Great Man” Democracy

The notion that history is shaped primarily by the actions of exceptional individuals—usually men—is nothing new. The “Great Man theory” of history, popularized by 19th century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, posited that the progress of civilization could be understood as a series of heroic deeds by extraordinary figures.

This idea fell out of favor among academic historians in the 20th century, as more structural and systemic approaches to understanding historical change gained prominence. But remnants of Great Man thinking have persisted in popular culture and political discourse.

The neoliberal turn in politics and economics beginning in the 1980s breathed new life into Great Man ideology. By fetishizing individualism and promoting the idea that anyone could succeed through hard work and talent, neoliberalism created fertile ground for the worship of ultra-successful individuals.

Figures like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos came to be seen not just as talented businessmen, but as visionaries reshaping entire industries through sheer force of will and genius. Their massive wealth accumulation was justified as a natural result of their exceptional abilities and contributions to society.

In the political realm, this manifested as the rise of the celebrity politician and the increasing personalization of political movements. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher became iconic figures whose personal charisma and ideological certainty were seen as key to pushing through sweeping changes. This trend has only accelerated in recent decades.

From Individualism to Personality Cults

What started as a celebration of individualism, however, has metastasized into something more extreme and potentially dangerous: full-blown personality cults built around powerful elites. No longer content to simply admire successful individuals, large swathes of the public now look to them as messianic figures capable of single-handedly solving complex societal problems.

Trump is more a symptom than a cause. The broader trend towards personality-driven politics is evident across the political spectrum and around the world.

This shift serves to further justify extreme inequality and the concentration of wealth and power. If we believe that only exceptional individuals can truly change the world, it follows that we should grant them exceptional resources and authority to do so. The end result is a self-reinforcing cycle of oligarchy, with a small elite accumulating ever more wealth and influence while selling themselves as indispensable leaders.

Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in the realm of politics, where elections increasingly revolve around the cults of personality built up around individual candidates rather than coherent ideologies or policy platforms. Donald Trump is perhaps the most extreme example of this phenomenon in recent American history. His supporters’ devotion often seems to transcend politics, taking on an almost religious fervor.

But Trump is more a symptom than a cause. The broader trend towards personality-driven politics is evident across the political spectrum and around the world. From Narendra Modi in India to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Boris Johnson in the UK, charismatic populists have risen to power by positioning themselves as messianic figures who alone can solve their nation’s problems.

Even more technocratic leaders like Emmanuel Macron in France have leaned heavily on personal brand and charisma, presenting themselves as uniquely talented individuals rather than representatives of broader movements or ideologies.

The Biden-Trump Rematch: Great Men in Decline

Which brings us to the current U.S. presidential election and the rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. On the surface, these two men could hardly be more different in temperament, background, and vision for the country. And yet, their contest represents the culmination of the trend towards Great Man politics, albeit in an particularly stark and perhaps tragic form.

Both men have built their campaigns around their personal brands and the cults of personality they’ve cultivated. For Trump, this revolves around his image as a politically incorrect outsider who alone can “drain the swamp” and restore American greatness. Biden, meanwhile, leans heavily on his persona as a steady, experienced hand who can restore normalcy and decency to the presidency.

Policy differences certainly exist between the two, but they often take a back seat to questions of character, toughness, and mental fitness. The election is being framed less as a contest between competing visions for America’s future and more as a choice between two men who each claim to be uniquely capable of leading the nation through troubled times.

Rather than a clash of titans at the height of their powers, the election risks becoming a sad spectacle of two men desperately clinging to relevance and authority even as their faculties visibly decline.

This personalization of politics serves to obscure the deeper structural issues facing American democracy and society. By focusing on the qualities of individual leaders, we lose sight of the systemic problems that no single person, no matter how talented or well-intentioned, can solve alone.

Moreover, there’s a profound irony in the fact that this contest between supposed “great men” is being waged by two candidates who many view as past their prime. Both Biden and Trump are near 80 years old and have faced persistent questions about their mental acuity and physical stamina. Rather than a clash of titans at the height of their powers, the election risks becoming a sad spectacle of two men desperately clinging to relevance and authority even as their faculties visibly decline.

This, perhaps more than anything, lays bare the hollowness of Great Man politics in its current form. The cults of personality built up around individual leaders have become so entrenched that they persist even when those leaders are clearly not up to the task of governance. Democracy supposedly demands great men, even when there are none to be found.

A System in Terminal Decline

The fixation on Biden and Trump as individuals obscures a more fundamental truth: the political and economic system they represent is itself showing clear signs of terminal decline. Inequality continues to skyrocket, with a tiny elite hoarding an ever-larger share of society’s wealth. Trust in institutions is at historic lows. Political polarization has reached toxic levels. And looming crises like climate change threaten to overwhelm our capacity for collective action.

In this context, the quest to find a singular great leader to solve all our problems is not just misguided – it’s actively harmful. It distracts from the need for broad-based movements and structural reforms. It discourages civic engagement by suggesting that change can only come from the top down. And it sets us up for perpetual disappointment when these supposedly transformative leaders inevitably fail to live up to impossible expectations.

The fixation on Biden and Trump as individuals obscures a more fundamental truth: the political and economic system they represent is itself showing clear signs of terminal decline.

The tragedy of the current election is that it represents a doubling down on this failed approach. Rather than stepping back and reassessing the underlying assumptions of our political system, we’re treated to another round of Great Man competition—this time between two candidates who seem particularly ill-suited to the role.

This is not to say that leadership is unimportant or that all politicians are interchangeable. But we must move beyond the notion that any one individual can single-handedly solve the complex, interconnected challenges facing modern societies. Real change requires collective action, institution building, and a long-term commitment to reforming broken systems.

Beyond the Cult of Personality

So where do we go from here? How can we move beyond the cult of personality in politics and rebuild a healthier, more robust democracy?

Crucially, we need to consciously resist the allure of simple narratives built around charismatic individuals. This means looking beyond soundbites and cultivating a deeper understanding of policy issues and systemic problems. It means being skeptical of grandiose promises and messianic rhetoric from any political figure.

As we watch two aged politicians compete for the chance to lead a nation in crisis, let it serve as a wake-up call. The era of great men is over.

We must also reinvigorate local and community-level political engagement. Change doesn’t just come from the top—it bubbles up from the grassroots. By getting involved in local government, community organizations, and issue-based movements, citizens can have a real impact without waiting for a great leader to solve everything.

Finally, we need structural reforms to our political system that dilute the outsized influence of wealthy individuals and encourage a more diverse range of voices in the political process. This could include campaign finance reform, ranked choice voting, and other measures to break the two-party duopoly.

The future of democracy, in the U.S. and beyond, depends on our ability to move beyond the cult of personality and reclaim politics as a collective endeavor. The alternative—a continued descent into gerontocratic oligarchy thinly disguised as populism—is too dire to contemplate. As we watch two aged politicians compete for the chance to lead a nation in crisis, let it serve as a wake-up call. The era of great men is over. The real work of rebuilding our democracy is just beginning.

Peter Bloom is a Professor at the University of Essex in the UK. His books include “Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization” (2016), “The CEO Society”, and most recently “Guerrilla Democracy: Mobile Power and Revolution in the 21st Century.”
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