During the last US presidential elections several pundits expressed concerns over whether Trump represented a returning trend towards the populist and authoritarian politicians that took over Europe and Latin America for several decades. Honestly, I do not believe such reasons for alarm, since the US has constitutional checks and balances in the Senate and Congress that should counteract a President that goes too far in his agenda.
However, for me the greatest surprise of the election was that some of the promises of Trump are so unrealistic that they sound a bit like the projects of ancient Roman emperors or Chinese rulers. After all, it must be in the mind of many that the proposed Mexican wall would be many times bigger than Hadrian’s Wall and quite comparable in size to the Chinese wall.
The fact that so many candidates in different countries decide to go for the election of head of state for reasons of fame and prestige with vague slogans like “make the country great again” makes me think that there are some advantages to countries in which the maximum head of state plays a mere ceremonial role. The reason is that the head of state is required to be a part of many ceremonies, such as receiving other heads of state, which can distract him from the harder tasks of ruling. Therefore some countries elect a head of state which has mostly a ceremonial function, while keeping some core powers that can be used to balance abuses from others (such as being able to dismiss a dysfunctional government and calling for new elections). The President gets to keep fame and the right to major speeches during all the important holidays, while the real decision power and unpleasant details such as negotiating a parliamentary majority are left to a prime minister or head of government.
A good thing about this is that candidates that are passionate about fame, but bored by the actual negotiations of real politics run for the Presidential election and get the right to do their harmless speech a few times a year. Politicians who actually have a project for the country will run for Prime Minister and get a less prestigious role, but a much more relevant one and with all the onerous tasks of negotiations and administration. This could be seen as Political Economy case of a separating equilibrium – offer two different contracts to politicians and each candidate will choose the role that suits them best. If America had such a system, then they could have fame-seeking Trump as President and Hillary as Prime Minister.
Curiously, the Western Roman Empire had learned this before their demise in the 5th century. After Theodosius, his descendants became prestigious Emperors with a glory similar to the Pope. However, the real source of power lay with the magister militum, which was a professional general in charge of the army plus negotiating taxation, administration and budgets.