The “power behind the throne” is said to be someone who does not hold an official leadership position but who effectively wields control.
The phrase is usually used in the context of government, to describe someone who is close to the official leader and has a great deal of influence over decision making. However, the power behind the throne can also describe the de facto leadership of a business or organization.
The concept of power behind the throne dates back hundreds of years, at least. In medieval France, for example, the Merovingian kings of the 8th century were little more than figureheads. The real powers behind the throne in France were the Carolongians, whose official title was just “mayor of the palace” but who made all the real decisions. Eventually, the Carolingians overthrew the Merovingian kings and established their own dynasty; Charlemagne is their most famous member.
Today, power behind the throne often refers to a vice president or a presidential advisor (or, in some countries, this might be the advisors to the prime minister or to another leader). The phrase can also be directed at a leader’s wife, husband, or other close family member. Hillary Clinton, for example, was often accused of being the power behind Bill Clinton. Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, were often accused of having too much power over Donald Trump.
The expression is almost always used to denigrate both the supposed leader and the supposed power behind the throne. Calling someone the power behind the throne is generally a way to belittle the actual ruler and to make the government appear fraudulent.
During the presidency of George W. Bush, many pundits liked to portray the president as a hapless and simple figure, who was led around by his team of advisers. Vice President Dick Cheney was often described as the power behind the throne. In 2004, Cheney announced that he would run for a second term as vice president. The Guardian ran a story headlined “The power behind the Bush throne will fight on.” The piece called Cheney the “most influential vice president in history” and concluded:
Mr Cheney appears content to wield power in a less visible manner. As long as his heart does not give out, he will continue to be the administration’s hidden hand, and his ideas of America’s role in the world will continue to hold sway.
A few years later, during the Obama presidency, the Huffington Post ran an article about Valerie Jarrett, a key presidential adviser. The piece described Jarrett as a “kingmaker” and argued that she had determined Obama’s victory. It concluded:
Like Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, Valerie Jarrett can be considered a “Kingmaker.” Like the original “Kingmaker” of the 15th century’s War of the Roses, who ‘made’ Richard III, Valerie Jarrett plays the same role to Barack Hussein Obama. She’s the key person who whispered into Obama’s ear at the right moment, “You are the rightful heir to the throne.”
She knew how to get him there and now she does everything in her formidable political power to keep him there.