Trump ran as an insurgent. But he can’t govern as one. Our badly split nation will need a leader who can find principles of common ground even with political opponents.
There’s an old joke about a politician who is asked his favorite color. And, of course, it’s plaid: something for everyone. The conventional wisdom about political animals is that they will say anything to be liked, to fit in, to be connected somehow to their constituents.
We often denigrate this feature of political life: the urge to ingratiate oneself to others. But what if we elected a leader who got most of his rhetorical energy from rhetorical separation? How could he possibly lead a great and diverse nation? The short answers are that we have, and that he probably can’t.
The election of Donald Trump is a milestone in so many ways. We’re familiar with the “firsts” and near firsts:” a chief executive who will assume power with no experience in public office; the first winning candidate in the modern presidency to abandon close consultation with the agencies during the transition—including Defense and State; the only modern American presidential candidate who campaigned on the pledge to “lock up” his opponent; and the first leader to float toward inauguration day still attacking members of the press and movie stars. All of this is made worse by the fact that Trump seems to be addicted to a medium–Twitter–more appropriate to adolescents than the leader of the western world.
During the campaign Trump was a rhetorical flame thrower. Many thought that side of this impulsive man would diminish. But it has not and probably won’t. More than most, he is energized by his enemies. The very thought of them translates into angry withering criticism, and complaints that his critics are “dishonest” and “finished.”
What this all portends for the nation is not good. Trump ran as an insurgent. But he can’t govern as one. Our badly split nation will need a leader who can find the transcendent principles of common ground even with his political opponents. As Georgia State’s Mary Stuckey reminds us, presidents are not only commanders-in-chief, but also interpreters-in-chief. Their obligations in the rhetorical presidency include affirming the basic decency of Americans, invoking shared national values, and consoling the nation in times of national trauma.
Think of President Obama’s rhetoric of forbearance on health care reform and immigration reform. Think of his good humor in the face of birth certificate “truthers” like Trump, or the crude obstructionism of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others. President Obama’s rhetorical nature was of a serious but positive agent for change. He shared that optimistic style with most of his predecessors, including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. We usually need to look to the Senate to find historical figures who thrived on indictment and division, figures like Joe McCarthy and Huey Long.
He seeks mostly his own counsel, turning himself into the equivalent of a sailor who uses astrology rather than astronomy for navigation.
It does not help that the President-elect seems to be incurious by nature. As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has pointed out, his utterances on events like the Navy drone capture by the Chinese have been embarrassingly behind actual events. He seeks mostly his own counsel, turning himself into the equivalent of a sailor who uses astrology rather than astronomy for navigation.
We can hope he changes. This nation is going to badly need a leader who can function as a broker and unifier.
A version of this essay first ran in the Star Ledger, January 1, 1017.