Will Our Clownish President Elect Destroy What's Left of America's Prestige?
Donald Trump clearly doesn’t care whether he’s seen as “presidential.” Almost the only time he’s ever mentioned the word was when he repeatedly accused Hillary Clinton of lacking “the presidential look.”
Based on Trump’s remarks about Clinton, including the time he blurted it during the third debate, it’s difficult to know whether he understands what being presidential means, as if it were exclusively about how someone looks rather than behaves. (It’s a lot of both.) But this much was obvious: Trump, ever the misogynist, didn’t think a 69-year-old woman looked presidential. The tragic irony is that Trump is absolutely the least presidential president-elect among all 44 men who have ascended to this post, whether in terms of appearance, temperament and presentational style.
Since the advent of the republic, political scientists and junkies alike have discussed what being “presidential” means in the context of the American system, and it’s certainly evolved over the years. As with so many other aspects of our constitutional democracy, presidential-ness has been handed down as one of the traditions that binds our entire system together. Throughout our history and especially in modern times, it projects a sense of stability in the White House — a sense of unwavering decency and decorum from a nation with the capacity to destroy civilization a thousand times over. There’s a dignified, statesmanlike quality that’s required of the presidency, a humble and benevolent posture that’s ideally commensurate with great power, offering both foreign allies and American voters alike a palpable sense of confident stability. Trump somehow managed to evade all of the above and, with the help of Vladimir Putin and millions of gullible voters, won anyway.
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley described being presidential this way:
I think the most important aspect of being presidential is to not scare the world or the American people that you’re going to do something irrational — going into war in a willy-nilly fashion, using sloppy language that disturbs allies, being too jingoistic in presentation to the point that the rest of the world’s economic markets start wondering what’s going on in the United States. So it’s really about gravitas, of showing that you’re ready for the big game and that you understand that you have to act in a professional and in a sane manner.
What we’ve seen from Donald Trump so far, be it during his campaign or during the current transition, is a man who absolutely fails to live up to the basic standards of being presidential and indeed appears to be the exact opposite of presidential. Yet his people love him for it.
The entire standard has been rendered irrelevant. Dead. Sixty-two million voters decided that being presidential doesn’t matter anymore and, tragically, every last Trump voter is about to discover why rejecting the presidential qualification was a blunder of historic proportions. The repercussions of this will be far-reaching and in so many ways irreparable. Due to a general lack of education combined with the distracting misinformation of social media, few voters understand that being a superpower involves a set of written and unwritten rules, meant to prevent the chief executive from drifting into “autocratic despot” territory and thus sparking sheer panic abroad among nations that rely on our support and reliability. Trump doesn’t care about these rules, and the destabilization that is likely to result will be horrendous.
Based on Brinkley’s standards, Trump doesn’t care about scaring the world with his cartoonish irrationality. If he did, he’d delete his Twitter account and stop doing victory rallies. Whether he’s attacking Vanity Fair for giving the Trump Grill a bad review; whether he’s toying with Taiwan and China in under 140 characters; whether he’s stirring up his throng of disciples by screeching both vague and overt threats against his enemies; or whether he’s awake at the crack of dawn attacking Alec Baldwin, Trump’s public behavior seems more like a morning zoo shock-jock than a leader who’s about to take control of the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Amazingly, Trump’s rallies are actually less presidential than his tweets, if that’s even possible. Never in the history of the modern presidency has a president-elect gone around to friendly crowds and recounted the election-night television coverage, while hamfistedly mocking various news anchors. Never in the history of the modern presidency has a president-elect ranted incoherently about he won “in a landslide” even though he lost the popular vote by a wide margin and got fewer electoral votes than roughly 46 out of 58 previous winners. All the constant “I’m so great, look at my landslide!” rants would be deeply un-presidential, even if Trump had actually won in a real landslide, which he didn’t. Do we need to even mention Trump’s infamous mockery of reporter Serge Kovaleski? The death of being presidential allowed him to get away with all of it.
Back to Brinkley’s definition: Trump is definitely scaring the world with his irrational behavior. Someone with exactly zero foreign policy experience decided that as his first international act it would be an excellent idea to completely stymie our delicate and complicated relationship with China. Similarly, the other day he used sloppy language to hector China over an American drone that was seized in the South China Sea — tweeting that the move was “unpresidented” [sic]. He later inexplicably told China to keep the U.S. drone, despite its proprietary technology and national security implications. Prior to that, he threatened to go to war “willy-nilly” against nations like Iran over obscene finger gestures. He’s also dealing in partisan conspiracy theories about Russia’s obvious hijacking of the election, suggesting it’s the Democrats, not the intelligence community, that are leaking details about Putin’s espionage. Trump also claims to be so smart he doesn’t need to receive intelligence briefings.
Trump exhibits the same level of gravitas as, say, a spoiled child wearing a cardboard crown from Burger King. His tacky, garish displays of wealth, his clownish stab at a normal head of hair, and his ridiculously ill-fitting suits utterly fail to convey a basic sense of taste, much less gravitas. The other day, for example, Trump referred to third-party candidate Evan McMullin as “Evan McMuffin.” Petty insults like this one (along with “Crooked Hillary,” “Crazy Bernie,” “Lyin’ Ted,” etc.) convey a level of gravitas equal to purple-nurples during recess. And while Trump insists that he’ll be a very, very terrific president and, literally, the greatest jobs president God ever created, no one with a sense of history who believes he’s going to be any of those things.
While there’s considerable debate about how the Trump-era Republicans will legislate, the real concern among both liberals and conservatives alike orbits around Trump’s erratic non-presidential actions. Throughout the past year or so, I’ve warned about the millions of unpredictable things Trump is capable of. We simply don’t know how he’s going to behave from minute to minute because he’s detached himself from the standards by which we evaluate all other presidents. Therefore nothing is off the table, and he’s capable of anything. The old rules don’t matter, and it’s impossible to fully highlight how bad it’s going to be.
More than ever, it’s possible to draw direct linkage between our current president-elect and the fictitious President Camacho from Mike Judge’s movie “Idiocracy.” The institutional disintegration that leads to “Idiocracy” begins with rejecting the mandatory quality of being presidential and replacing it with the screeching trollishness of Trump as he abuses and exploits his nefariously attained executive power. Every time Trump speaks at a rally or tweets another poorly-spelled conspiracy theory, Americans from red and blue states alike should be mortified. But they’re not, or at least not enough. Not anymore. The president is meant to speak for us, but we should never settle for a president who speaks like us. We should demand better. We should demand that the leader of the free world act like he’s the leader of the free world, and not like your semi-coherent racist uncle after too many beers.
America has successfully killed “being presidential,” and we should be ready for the painful consequences. Foreign leaders will only tolerate Trump’s instability and unpredictable monkey-with-a-machine-gun behavior for so long before the global balance of power begins to crumble. Trumpers might think this is a positive course of events. They will soon learn why being presidential is compulsory rather than dispensable.