The Trump Spectacle

9780700622856By 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.

How the Vice Presidency Changed, Exactly 40 Years Ago.

Contributed by Joel Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the creation of the White House vice presidency, the most significant recent development in American constitutional institutions and an important legacy of the presidency of Jimmy Carter and the vice presidency of Walter F. Mondale. There were many significant 1976 events along the road to transforming the vice presidency into a consequential, ongoing part of the presidency including the Carter-Mondale interview in Plains, Ga. on July 8, the Mondale selection on July 15, and the first vice-presidential debate on October 15. Yet perhaps no single event captures their creation more than Mondale’s 11-page memo to Carter, “The Role of the Vice President in the Carter Administration” , dated 40 years ago December 9.

fullsizerenderDuring the last 40 years, vice-presidential influence and constructive activity have become an expectation of our constitutional system. That was certainly not the case on December 9, 1976.  Indeed, Mondale’s memo began by noting that finding a role for the vice presidency had been a perennial “problem,” that vice presidential role had been “characterized by ambiguity, disappointment, and even antagonism” and that the eminent presidential historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. had described the job as one of “spectacular and …incurable frustration.” Nelson A. Rockefeller ‘s term began amidst high expectations of vice-presidential involvement, but soon Rockefeller was at odds with President Gerald R. Ford’s chiefs of staff, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and was dumped from the 1976 ticket.  Less than a decade before Rockefeller’s failed vice presidency, President Lyndon B. Johnson had marginalized and humiliated Mondale’s political friend, Hubert H. Humphrey. The inability of men like Humphrey and Rockefeller to contribute as vice president reinforced the fatalism of Schlesinger and others about the office.

Mondale’s December 9 memorandum culminated a lengthy period of study and thought. Humphrey had encouraged him to be open to the vice presidency during a spring meeting arranged by Mondale’s Senate chief of staff, Richard Moe. Mondale began to study the vice presidency before he met with Carter on July 8. During their meeting, Mondale and Carter were on the same page regarding elevating the second office without getting too specific. After Carter chose him, Mondale asked his former legislative assistant, Robert Barnett, to prepare a study of the office. Barnett’s 38-page report surveyed problems of past vice presidents and made recommendations that helped shape the White House vice presidency. Barnett’s insightful study discussed the importance of the president-vice president relationship and the threats to it and presciently emphasized the possibility of making a meaningful contribution as a “Super Advisor.” After Carter and Mondale were elected, Mondale met with Rockefeller and former Humphrey staff members in addition to ongoing discussions with his associates including his principal aides Moe, Michael Berman and James Johnson. After Carter, Mondale and Moe met to discuss Mondale’s role, Carter requested a memorandum which Mondale asked Moe to prepare.

9780700622023Mondale and his associates understood the difficulties of past vice presidents but they were problem solvers, not pessimists. Mondale had several advantages. Carter genuinely wanted to empower his vice president. Carter and Mondale and their staffs had worked well during the campaign. Mondale had contributed to the Democrats’ victory and had important skills and relationships which could help Carter govern. Barnett’s study and the months of discussion suggested a new path forward. The mission of the December 9 memo was to propose a workable vice-presidential vision and the resources to support it.

Mondale’s December 9 memo rested on the premises that the vice president should contribute to government on an ongoing basis, not primarily serve as a presidential successor; that the vice president’s contribution should occur in the executive branch; and that the relevant challenge was to identify a role for the vice president that would contribute to government and the presidency, not enhance the vice president’s power or pleasure.

Consistent with Barnett’s study, Mondale concluded that “the most important contribution” he could make was as a “general adviser” to Carter. As the only other nationally elected officer, and one who was not bound by departmental obligations but was “able to look at the government as a whole,” Mondale was “in a unique position to advise.” Mondale’s political and governmental experience, his “political role around the country,” and his “established relationships” could help connect policy and politics. He could help make sure Carter was exposed to diverse points of view and not insulated from bad news as had some prior presidents. Mondale could also take on troubleshooting assignments for Carter such as traveling abroad, investigating problems, refereeing interdepartmental disputes, and working with Congress on major initiatives. Mondale’s approach differed from prior vice presidents who had sought areas or programs to run, a course Mondale et al concluded was a path to failure.

To succeed in these roles, Mondale told Carter he would need regular private access to Carter, inclusion in key groups, intelligence briefings and other information, associates in important roles, and a relationship for him and his staff with the White House staff.

Carter agreed to Mondale’s vice-presidential vision and the resources he identified. In fact, Carter went beyond the requests in the December 9 memo. He invited Mondale to all meetings on his schedule, directed that Mondale receive the same briefing papers Carter got, gave Mondale a choice West Wing office, and insisted that White House staff respond positively to Mondale’s requests.

The December 9 memo provided the blueprint for Mondale’s vice presidency. Its basic ideas were passed forward to subsequent administrations. In fact, Al Gore’s chief of staff, Roy Neel, later obtained a copy and used it as a starting point for Gore’s arrangement with Bill Clinton. The last six vice presidencies have differed in emphasis and influence but all have functioned as White House vice presidents consistent with the December 9, 1976 blueprint.

In addition to providing the basis for the White House vice presidency, the December 9, 1976 memo, and the events preceding and following it, provide a wonderful case study about the way in which thoughtful and knowledgeable public servants can make positive and lasting changes in governmental institutions. That’s something to study and celebrate this, and every, December 9.