Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Is Trump ‘Presidential’? Is Anyone?

Of the many words Donald Trump has uttered over the last nine months — all the insightful insults and blustery boasts, all the syntax-slaying murk that sometimes boomerangs back into sense and all the hateful hate that doesn’t — last month brought a new flash of negative élan. Trump was speaking at a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., when he took stock of his own demeanor as a candidate.

“Now, my wife is constantly saying, ‘Darling, be more presidential.’ I just don’t know that I want to do it quite yet,” he told a packed, ready-to-rock house. “At some point I’m going to be so presidential that you people will be so bored. And I’ll come back as a presidential person, and instead of 10,000 people, I’ll have about 150 people, and they’ll say, ‘But, boy, he really looks presidential!’ ”

When we’re thinking about voting for president, we’re also thinking about what’s “presidential.” I never know quite what that means, except that, like the sitcom-wife version of Melania Trump in her husband’s anecdote, I kind of do. It connotes carriage and posture and intelligence. It captures dignified comportment and a degree of knowledge. It’s the ability to depict leadership, from lecterns to tarmacs. It’s partly cosmetic — is this person tall, passably fit, loosely attractive, warm? — and almost entirely presentational. It’s the seriousness a candidate has to project in order to be taken seriously, only without seeming dour or battery-operated. “Presidential” used to be something to aspire to. All of that authority, know-how, gravitas, good posture and moral rectitude — it seemed so important, so adult, so American.

But Trump has tapped into something else about “presidential”: If it’s a performance, then it can be switched on and off as needed. You can trace this tactic as far back as, improbably, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In her book “Voting Deliberatively: F.D.R. and the 1936 Presidential Campaign,” Mary E. Stuckey writes that, during the summer months before the election: “F.D.R. concentrated on being presidential. So determinedly nonpolitical was he, in fact, that Roosevelt didn’t actually acknowledge he was running for re-election until late September.” But when he finally did campaign, Roosevelt “came out swinging” against his Republican opponents. In Stuckey’s rendering, “presidential” requires remaining above the fray that running for president invariably requires leaping into.[...]

By the late 20th century, “presidential” had become entirely bound up in technological savvy, and Reagan, as could be expected from a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, was an artist when it came to optics. Brian Balogh, a professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia and co-host of the radio show “BackStory With the American History Guys,” told me that “Reagan’s stroke of genius was to continue running against the establishment while he was actually the president.” This was a man who, during his 1984 re-election bid, had Air Force One land just outside the Daytona International Speedway to attend the Fourth of July Firecracker 400. “A lot of people,” Balogh said, “would say that was unpresidential.” A decade later, the nation would be in the midst of an ongoing fit over all things “unpresidential,” thanks to Bill Clinton’s sax playing, his stated preference for briefs over boxers (on MTV!), his extramarital affair.[...]

Obama’s demeanor has always suggested that he believes in the office; Trump’s has always suggested that he doesn’t. If Trump is a student of history, he has surely surmised that “presidential” is a kind of fraud, one he can put to farcical ends on the campaign trail. In order to seem presidential, he’ll just have to pause being “demagogic,” “sexist,” “authoritarian,” “bigoted” and “nationalistic.”

And once he officially gets the nomination, his final opponent will bring “presidential” to another crossroads. The national data set for the concept has been almost entirely male. But has any 2016 candidate checked off the “presidential” boxes more dutifully than Hillary Clinton? She embodies both the authority and the stodginess of the term. She’s serious, sturdy, studied and commanding. Unlike Trump, she has a track record of public service. She is also, arguably, the face of what a sham that gravitas can be; people simply don’t trust her.

Americans don’t yet know what to do with a presidential woman. Neither, it seems, does Clinton. Trump is making “anti-presidential” look easy, while she’s making the real thing look hard. That neurotic quality is what Kate McKinnon, on “Saturday Night Live,” pours into her strange, affectionate incarnation of Clinton: wanting the job so badly that she can seem pathologically presidential. She just happens to be running against somebody happy to act as if he doesn’t really want it at all.


  1. Donald Trump is brilliant. He has figured out that the American people have an ever-increasing need for shock. Sports has to be ever more flamboyant to hold people's attention. Television shows have to get ever more salacious and graphic to hold, never mind increase, their ratings. He has decided to turn the presidential campaign into a reality show with himself as the star and he knows people will tune in for that. Win or lose he will be the centre of everyone's attention for the next several months and that's his dream come true.

  2. clinton, the master of polling, who'se husband never made a decision without focus group polling, is complaining (via the nytimes, in this case) about trump, who is his own focus group? and is more successful at it, than she, with her multi million dollar pollsters, etc. and she's complaining?

  3. Trump is a master persuader. Many of the things he's done and said are planned. Scott Adam's (Yes, the Dilbert cartoonist) blog has provided the best analysis of Trump's presidential campaign in my opinion:


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