Head of State and the Allure of the Political Outsider

3 Arts Entertainment / Katie Martin / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Head of State’s climactic scene finds the presidential campaign that the film has revolved around—D.C. alderman Mays Gilliam (Chris Rock) versus Vice President Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy)—distilled down to a single event: the live-televised presidential debate. It’s the ultimate show-down between those two enduring tropes in American politics: the outsider versus the career politician. And Lewis plays exactly according to type: He’s smooth. He’s calm. He speaks in soundbites. He says things like “this is what America’s all about,” and he ends his statements with “God bless America, and no place else.”

Gilliam, on the other hand … is surprising. He can’t play to type, because the political outsider, by definition, has no type: Outsiders are their own people. They have no patience for the traditional pageantries of politics. They simply tell the truth as they see it. And that is precisely what Gilliam does as he summarizes his position in the debate. “When it comes to paying farmers not to grow food, while people in this country starve every day,” he says—“yes, I’m an amateur.”

The crowd erupts into applause.

“When it comes to creating a drug policy that makes crack and heroin cheaper than asthma and AIDS medicine—yes, I’m an amateur.”

More applause.

“But there’s nothing wrong,” he continues, “with being an amateur. The people that started the Underground Railroad were amateurs. Martin Luther King was an amateur. Have you ever been to Amateur Night at the Apollo? Some of the best talent in the world was there!”

“But you wouldn’t know nothing about that,” Gilliam continues. “Why? Because when it comes to judging talent and potential, you, my friend, are an amateur!”

It’s a victorious performance—one that emphasizes the role that empathy, real empathy, must play in elections. “How can you help the poor if you’ve never been poor?” Gilliam asks. “How can you stop crime if you don’t know no criminals? How can you make drug policy if you never smoke the chronic?”

The crowd erupts, again, into cheers. And, with that, the fantasy of the political outsider is perfectly articulated (as Gilliam’s opponent sweats, profusely, into a handkerchief). If a presidential campaign is a job interview, then many of the hiring managers have decided that a lack of experience is preferable to a long career in public service. And that might have to do with a mistrust of bureaucracy, but it has even more to do with the political value of simple empathy. Career politicians, the idea goes, don’t understand what it means to suffer and want and need. They don’t, in every sense, get it.

Not so Mays Gilliam. “I’m a real American!” the presidential candidate says, in conclusion. “I’ve been high! I’ve been robbed! I’ve been broke! My credit is horrible! They won’t even take my cash!”

The crowd goes wild. And the career politician keeps on sweating.