Donald Trump is bringing an unconventional approach to the Office of the President (“Office”). His supporters demanded an outsider to turn Washington, D.C., upside down.
While few would disagree that the capital could use a good shaking, casting aside well-honed expectations and traditions is unwelcome. Trump’s approach to the Office is akin to a distant relative bringing a frozen pizza as a “side” to a formal Thanksgiving dinner.
Our expectations for the presidency
For many, impressions of the presidency are initially formed by childhood trips to visit Mount Rushmore. Mountainous sculptures of four men made the Office bigger than life.
Presidential libraries showcase the Office by highlighting the achievements of its occupants. We construct monuments and name buildings to honor those who serve as president. There is not a community of any size where one cannot find a Washington Street or Lincoln Avenue.
Expectations for the Office are magnified when we watch actors play the role of president — Michael Douglas in “The American President,” Martin Sheen in “The West Wing” or Keith Carradine in “Madam Secretary.” Their characters steadily face down crisis after crisis. How many times has Morgan Freeman saved us from disaster?
Fictional and historical portrayals of the presidency foster an image of integrity, acuity, generosity and coolness under pressure. It is an image that we are loath to give up. It is why, for so many, losing the dignity that the Obama family brought to the White House hurts. It is also why, when someone abuses the Office as Nixon did, they get evicted.
Irrespective of policy differences, the question is: How might our expectations for the Office change as a result of the Trump presidency? Will the neon lights that flash TRUMP blind us to the historic majesty of the Office represented by Mount Rushmore?
The coming evolution of presidential temperament
“The presidency is not merely an administrative office. … It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.” Franklin Roosevelt, New York Times, 1932
“I have always said, ‘if you need Viagra, you’ve got the wrong girl.” Donald Trump, Playboy, 2004
Presidents set a tone through their temperament and style. Our recent presidents, Democrats and Republicans, bring to mind descriptors like unflappable, articulate, contemplative, humane, decisive, gentlemanly, humble, honest, strong and classy. What words will President Trump now add to this list?
During the campaign, Trump made himself a media spectacle by acting like a “shock jock.” Some found his approach entertaining, while others were appalled. Trump is a self-absorbed person who vacillates between “snarling” and “boastfulness.” During the campaign, Trump repeatedly stated that he could act more “presidential” and would do so but for the fact that it was “boring.” Thus far Trump has elected to not bore us as he pivots from electoral politics to governing. He continues to channel Old Yeller just before the shot.
So, as a result of Trump, will the Democrats have to nominate Howard Stern or a game-show host just to compete? Will expectations for the Office now include how effectively future occupants malign people? As our reference point for “leadership” shifts, will children choose Darth Vader over Princess Leia costumes for Halloween?
The coming evolution of presidential communication
“You do not lead people by hitting people over the head. Any damn fool can do that, but it is usually called assault — not leadership.” Quote attributed to Dwight Eisenhower in “Reviewing the Cold War,” by Patrick Morgan.
“Meryl Streep, one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky….” Donald Trump, 1/9/17 tweet.
The Office is shaped by the ability of its occupants to be effective communicators. From Kennedy’s use of press conferences to the soaring oration of Reagan and Obama’s written word, the Office has enjoyed many good communicators. Presidential communication not only inspires; it maintains the transparency demanded by the public in the post-Watergate era.
While the Office’s method of communication has evolved with technological change, the formality of the communication was never lost. A premium is placed on basics like grammar, spelling and using versions of the English language understood by all. This professionalism maintains the credibility of the presidency.
Trump is poised to trash this formality. His speeches are a rambling mishmash of red meat designed to provide temporary satiation to a hungry crowd. It is impossible to imagine Trump using his current oration skills to effectively serve as “comforter in chief” to a grieving nation or to coalesce a divided country around a common good.
Trump’s preferred medium — Twitter — is used to communicate incomplete thoughts about random subjects without the nicety of proper syntax. After each tweet, Trump surrogates fan out to explain what he meant. A lack of clarity combined with a “catch up with me if you can” communication style bouncing from subject to subject merely creates confusion, not transparency.
“Tweeting” as the main method of presidential communication changes our expectations for the Office. Imagine Lincoln, using the handle @realBIGABE, reducing his use of language to 140 letters — “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth … #overandout.”
Further, Trump works to make sure that the public only believes what he says. He repeatedly tars the independent press as “crooked” and “dishonest.” Through his saturation bombing of reporters, Trump is tacitly evicting an independent press from the White House. This will also impact transparency.
So, in a few years, will our offspring think that presidential speeches are merely a waste of time since leaders should be able to explain and solve complex problems in 140 letters? What good are all those lengthy quotes at the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorial anyway — the space could be used for hotels.
The coming evolution of presidential truthfulness
“I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only government, but civilization itself.” Gerald Ford, presidential address, 1974.
“We told the truth, obeyed the law and kept the peace.” Walter Mondale quote etched at the Carter Presidential Library.
“Obama also fabricated his own birth certificate after pressure to produce by @realDonaldTrump.” Donald Trump, 11/23/14 tweet.
The Office’s foundation is built on the idea that its occupants are, for the most part, truthful. The quaint story about George Washington and the cherry tree ending with, “Father, I cannot tell a lie” helped set that expectation.
The public may not be privy to everything taking place in the Office. Priorities are set. Events get spun. However, when the president speaks, there has been a general consensus that the information, even if objectionable, is pretty reliable. If not, a dogged press is quick to correct the record.
By all accounts, Trump will take the Office to a “fact free” or “alternative fact” zone. Trump gives National Enquirer headlines the same credibility as intelligence reports. Trump refuses to acknowledge what he said when presented with an exact transcript. Reality is a place which Trump may visit occasionally, but a place where he does not linger. Trump is a personified Gatling gun rapidly shooting out inaccuracy after inaccuracy.
Post-Trump presidents may be perceived as also unable to distinguish between what is true or untrue. That will weaken the Office. Why bother to listen to the President — it is probably not really a national emergency. Will Washington’s purported confession to his father be greeted by children with a suspicious smile, wink and, ”Right, I’m sure he told his dad”?
Trump will bring new approaches to the Office that promise to erode long-held public expectations that were diligently built up by his Republican and Democratic predecessors. These expectations, in turn, helped make America great. We will probably never look at Mount Rushmore in quite the same way.
Robert Moilanen is a Minneapolis attorney who formerly served as Special Assistant to Vice President Walter Mondale.
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