Presidential Theater On a Small Screen


It’s still a surprise to encounter a president who mostly shuns the potent rhetorical power of the office in favor of throwing little grenades of text out to small screens.

Since the early 1950s presidents have always made effective use of television.  As my colleague David Blake points out in his new book, Liking Ike (Oxford, 2016), even the rhetorically awkward Dwight Eisenhower warmed to the demands of ‘putting on a good show’ for Americans anxious to be reassured.  With its obvious interest in pictures, television is anything but a natural home for political discussion. But the presidency obviously has the advantage of singularity.  This is what the “bully pulpit means in the 21st Century.  Video in various forms sustains our need to understand that one person is mostly in charge.  We use this reductionist idea to make the presidency a vessel into which we place a lot of hope for our well-being and security.

So it’s all the more surprising to encounter a president who still shuns the  magisterial power of the Presidency in favor of throwing out little grenades of text to small screens late at night.  To be sure, our Donald Trump remains true to his reality television roots.  He has mastered a kind of bumper sticker rhetoric, even though these missives betray him as a shallow and surprisingly mean-spirited leader.  In more normal times presidents usually try to offer to the nation the best versions of themselves.

The screen of a smartphone is too small for this task, especially since presidents have an IMax of possibilities they can use to press their views to the American public: availabilities for journalists, junkets, and visits to Americans to offer support and reassurance.  By tradition the best and most transcendent causes  are at his disposal.  The job requires the celebration of all things quintessentially American.

We usually come to terms with the President largely as a dominating presence in video set pieces: press conferences, the State of the Union Address and carefully choreographed interviews, especially when they are carried by one of the big three cable news channels. It’s a puzzle no one has clued him in on how to master these venues.  He survived the State of the Union Speech.  Many thought it was one of his best moments.  Surely he must  have some additional American values to celebrate, features of the national character that he could endorse. They would at least make a play at reframing himself as a leader with a heart. Events like a walk-through at a veteran’s hospital or simply throwing out a baseball as the National’s start of their season could humanize him.  Moments like these could only leave his doubters silent.  Even Richard Nixon could be charming when reminiscing about his four brothers, or the hard-scrabble life of his Quaker family in small-town Whittier California.

What kind of president reverts to a divisive campaign speech in the first three months of office?

To understand how much an outlier Trump is one need only look at his strange “campaign” appearance in Harrisburg Pennsylvania on April 27. The Leader of the Free World looked small and defiant in that speech, which was mostly an attack on all sorts of Americans: the press, the Senate Majority Leader, migrants and minorities.  He found time to criticize the architecture and new location of  the “fake news” The New York Times. There were also predictable scuffles outside.  And a few hecklers gave him a chance to use his beloved mafia line, throw them “outta here!” As the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson noted, “It was a speech with all the logic, elevation and public purpose of a stink bomb.”  Another Republican presidential adviser David Gergen, told CNN it was the most divisive presidential speech he had ever heard.

What kind of president reverts to a divisive campaign speech in the first three months of office?  Why is his eye always on the rear view mirror rather than the tortuous road ahead?  And why is he still issuing jeremiads against his foes rather than sharing national aspirations?   Time will tell.  But at least for now, and from a rhetorical perspective, Trump has managed to make the Presidency small and diminished, and too many of us nervous.