By Bruce Miroff, author of Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face
As the inauguration of Donald Trump approaches, his future course as president is as hard to predict as the man himself. One prediction, however, seems safe to make: Trump’s presidency will be a continual spectacle in the media.
I depict the presidential spectacle in the first chapter of my recently published book with the University Press of Kansas: Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face. It is through spectacles mounted in the media that presidents establish a political identity (and critics contest it with their own media efforts). The idea of the presidential spectacle contains three elements: the presentation of the president as a larger-than-life character, the supporting role of the president’s team, and the ensemble of White House gestures whose principal aim is to dramatize the president’s virtues rather than to promote policy accomplishments. Since the coming of the television age in the administration of John F. Kennedy, every president has had to cope with the imperative of producing a winning spectacle.
During his extraordinary run for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to possess all the ingredients of a historic spectacle. Once in office, however, Obama concentrated heavily on the details of policymaking, slighting, by his own admission, the “symbols and gestures” through which a president communicates with the public. Immersed in rational deliberation, Obama lost much of his campaign luster, and the press began to complain that he was too cerebral, too cool, too aloof—in short, “professorial.” Obama regained some of his spectacle mojo in his second term, especially with African Americans and millennials, but his presidency remained committed at its core to good policy as the core of good government.
Evincing little interest in the substance of public policy, Donald Trump is likely to epitomize the opposite of Obama: the presidency as pure spectacle. Trump’s campaign for the White House was all “symbols and gestures,” with grandiose themes backed by scanty details. The signature spectacle of the Trump campaign was his rallies. These were participatory events for rally attendees, vicarious participation for his millions of followers watching on television.
Trump rallies were unlike any others in presidential campaigning. They were spectacles of fervor and fury. In some respects they resembled rock concerts: the star performer in the spotlight, the audience garbed in fan T-shirts and hats, the crowds chanting their favorite lines. “Build the wall” and “lock her up” allowed the crowds to echo Trump’s own contempt for immigrants and for his opponent, simultaneously signaling menace to the protestors and journalists in the hall who Trump pointed out in anger.
The rally attendees and the fans watching around the nation were predominantly the white working-class base that was the key to Trump’s election as president. His rallies were not the first occasions when he had found this base and made it his own. Recall Donald Trump’s stint with professional wrestling: he will be the first president who has previously been welcomed into the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Hall of Fame. Recall Trump’s role as impresario of the Miss Universe pageant. Trump staged profitable spectacles of beauties and beasts—of slim young women in bathing suits and huge men in trunks. These were not spectacles that appealed to the educated classes, especially to those that Trump delighted in denouncing as “politically correct.” But through these spectacles the billionaire connected to a working-class base that no other candidate in 2016 could reach. One cannot imagine a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, a Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz, as the host of wrestling matches or beauty contests.
Since his election, Trump has not let go of spectacle for a minute. His auditions for cabinet positions have been a near-daily TV drama as he holds court in his iconic Manhattan tower. He has even reenacted his campaign rallies in “thank-you” appearances–a golden-oldies tour that keeps the fans aroused. His inauguration is likely to be over-the-top in gold and glitz. But the day after, he will have to govern, and then the Trump spectacle will meet its real test.
At least two major risks for the Trump spectacle can be foreseen. One is that Trump’s non-stop spectacle will grow tiresome, as an increasing share of the public audience feels that they have seen his antics too many times. Franklin D. Roosevelt is an instructive guide here. FDR’s fireside chats were an electronic marvel of simulated intimacy between a president and his people. Yet the fireside chats were broadcast on average only 2.5 times per year. When a supporter urged FDR to take to the air more often to promote his agenda, the president demurred, arguing that over-exposure would take away the freshness—and the effectiveness—of his radio appearances.
An even larger risk to the Trump spectacle is the intrusion of reality. It is far easier to make promises on the campaign trail than to deliver on them in the White House, especially when the promises, like Trump’s, are grandiose and may run contrary to long-established trends. The capacity of stark realities to subvert crowd-pleasing spectacles is illustrated by a notorious event during the presidency of George W. Bush. When Bush staged his “Mission Accomplished” spectacle on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to celebrate his apparent triumph in Iraq, the press treated it as a new peak in the production of spectacle. However, after the conflict in Iraq resumed with appalling brutality, “Mission Accomplished” became a mockery for Bush. Presidents may score points for an appealing spectacle, but they are judged in the end by how well they perform in enacting successful policies.
Donald Trump has built a remarkably successful career through his talent at spectacle. It has been his one true qualification for the office of president. But will it be enough to carry him through a successful administration? In business, and now in politics, he has lived by spectacle. In the White House, that may be a fatal flaw.