Otherwise Engaged

We know we’re in trouble when the best he can do is incite more anger, which is about 180 degrees off course from the long-established presidential path of expressing condolences and promising hope. 

One of the benchmark functions of the Presidency practiced by all modern occupants is the fulfillment of the role of “interpreter in chief.” We owe the phrase to Mary Stuckey, a presidential scholar, who reminded us a while ago that presidents function in part to explain crises to the American public and suggest ways forward.  This rhetoric always speaks to our better selves and emphasizes widely shared beliefs. Somehow this President sees no need to manage crises by reassuring the public. Indeed, he appears to be among the relatively small percentage of humans who lack the capacity for empathy. He seems to not notice when the nation is grieving.

There is no shortage of good models for this vital presidential function. Think of Ronald Reagan after the Challenger disaster, Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma bombing, George W. Bush in the ruins of the World Trade Center and Barack Obama after the school shootings in Newtown Connecticut.  F.D.R. was famous for his fireside chats, talking the country through the worst days of the depression and World War II. And then there was a grim John Kennedy reminding us of the choices he and the nation faced with the installation of missile bases in Cuba.

Why is Mr. Trump so unspeakably bad at this? 

We have sensed the emotional wounds of presidents who have comforted survivors and understood the need to rise above partisanship. The interpreter function is fundamentally about empathy, sympathy, regret, and compassion. It may ask for sacrifice in the name of the greater good. It seeks to unify rather than divide. It asks for patience and tolerance. It projects calm rather than turmoil. It never threatens force against other Americans.

Why is Mr. Trump so unspeakably bad at this?  We know we’re in trouble when the best he can do is incite anger: an impulse that is 180 degrees off course from the long-established presidential norm of promising hope.  Aren’t more than 100,000 American deaths from a badly managed pandemic enough? How many small businesses need to be in dire straits? And doesn’t a history of the murder of unarmed African American men count for something?

Instead, the President passes up presidential eloquence and the bully pulpit, preferring a pathetic Twitter account misapplied as a tool of presidential leadership. He uses it like just like any another emotionally vacant troll looking for a cheap taunt.  Meanwhile, one of the most admired traditions of presidential leadership remains out of sight.

The Durability of Scapegoating

[We have a President who is shameless in shifting the blame for our national woes to everyone but himself. This is a human habit we all have from time to time.  But rarely has a national leader so consistently sought the rhetorical cover of some other group’s malfeasance.  Here’s one theory for it.] 

The master-critic Kenneth Burke was a great observer of our communication routines, and never more so than when he described the “scapegoat principle.”  For most of us working to understand why we say the things we do, this familiar rhetorical form is a frequent reminder of the psychological benefits of transferring guilt to others.

Burke noted that groups or individuals face two options when a decision or action didn’t turn out as well as they wished.  If we screwed up, we can accept responsibility and note with regret that our efforts failed to work out.  He called this the “mortification” option, as in “I thought I could fix the bad feeling between Bill and Fred, but I think I just made it worse.  I’m not very good at playing the role of mediator.”  But doing this, of course, carries no obvious rewards, and requires a certain degree of grace and humility.

So we usually opt for the second choice: we scapegoat the problem to others.  It’s easier to blame Bill or Fred because doing so is an act of personal redemption.  In this form our words are all too familiar: “Things are not going very well in my life right now and it’s her fault.”  Like a fast-acting pill, the shifting of unwanted effects to others lifts us from the burdens of self-examination. In Burke’s language, we have “cast out” the problem.  Perhaps this is why we have parents, pets, uncles, Republicans, socialists, college professors, Iranians, labor unions, members of Congress and in-laws.  We can feel better when we believe that others are worse.

Most forms of scapegoating have a familiar ring:

  • They have created the mess we’re in.”
  • “My life is not going well; I blame the Democrats.”
  • “True, I flunked the course.  But I had a lousy teacher.”
  • “We’d be a good organization if only we had different leadership.”
  • “The problem with America is that it has too many illegal immigrants.”

Tribes have always used sacrifices to purge the group of its problems. The usual victim was a four-legged animal that would be sacrificed to cleanse away problems usually caused by other humans. In the 21st Century we are less likely to round up a hapless critter for this ritual “casting out” of guilt. Instead, we usually pick a plausible member of our own species and simply attribute our problems to them. Think of internet trolls and their venom.  Anonymous comments online represent a perpetual Lourdes of guilt transference.

It would be nice if we could chalk up this human habit as but a small foible in the species. But the consequences of blaming others can’t be so easily dismissed. It’s worth remembering that Hitler’s murderous purge of supposed “non-Aryans” from German society—first with words and later with death camps–was fresh in Burke’s mind when he summarized the scapegoating principle.