It was classic Trump. After being pressured in private by some of the new advisers brought into his campaign in order to help him appeal to mainstream voters, Donald Trump rebelled. In public. And his fans loved it.
Some within the Trump circle have been telling us in off-the-record conversations with the press that up until now the Republican frontrunner has just been “projecting an image” to the public that will soon be changed once he has the GOP nomination in his pocket. It’s a nice theory if you believe that Trump is faking being a buffoonish thug who dog whistles to racists, encourages violence, is ignorant about most policy issues, and incapable of doing anything but mouthing anything but empty slogans about “making America great again” and returning the country to the manufacturing economy it had 50 years ago. But unfortunately for those new members of the Trump circus, the billionaire has his own ideas about what is acceptable behavior.
During a campaign appearance in Waterbury, Connecticut, Trump mocked the very idea that he ought to start acting like a president rather than a reality star celebrity candidate capitalizing on the rage of disaffected voters. As ABC News reported:
“I can do it,” he told a crowd of more than 3,000 supporters. “You know what, I’m like a really smart person. Like a lot of you people. Presidential is easy.”
To make his point, he stepped away from the podium and walked stiffly back to the mic and spoke mockingly in a dull, quiet tone. “Ladies and gentlemen of Waterbury, it’s a great honor to be with you this morning,” he said to laughs and cheers from the crowd. “Although most presidents don’t work in the morning, you know that, right?” he added, reverting back to his normal voice. “No, it’s very easy to be presidential.”
Yes, being presidential is, as he said a few weeks ago, “boring as hell.” If you don’t think he’s right just ask the members of that audience — and probably most of the people who turn out to see Trump wherever he goes — whether they like him as he is. The answer is that they love the unpresidential Donald and want to him to keep feeding them the red meat they come to hear.
Moreover, Trump knows this. Though he has admitted that his wife and daughter have asked him to be more presidential — which is a polite way of referencing his continuous stream of insults aimed at opponents, threats against Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi as well as a stream of invective aimed at Mexicans and Muslims — he says he won’t tone down his act.
“I sort of don’t like toning it down,” he said. “If I acted presidential, I guarantee I wouldn’t be here,” he added.
He’s right about that. The entire conceit of Trump’s campaign is a road show designed to vent voter anger and its one that has been rewarded with huge pluralities that have turned into majorities in New York and the Northeastern states that vote today. Much of this sort of reasoning involves a lot of cognitive dissonance and misinformation but voters that are sick and tired of anything that sounds like what they’ve seen before from politicians. They want to burn it all down and replace it with whatever it is that Trump’s three-ring circus might produce should he win the White House.
We know that the sheer nastiness of the Trump campaign is a symptom of the gradual changes in American culture that have taken hold over the last few decades rather than the cause of the decline in civility. But it is also true that Trump is not the first president to chip away at the dignity of the office. A Rubicon was crossed the day candidate Bill Clinton decided to answer about what kind of underwear he wore, though perhaps we didn’t grasp the true meaning of that quip until he disgraced his office with a dalliance with a White House intern.
Of course, there is a difference between degrading the presidency and a president not taking himself too seriously. There’s nothing wrong with a presidential guest appearance on a comedy show or with a late night comedian so long as the president is merely demonstrating his sense of humor (preferably about himself) rather than venting his own resentments or making opponents the butt of popular scorn.
But in Trump, we have something new: a presidential candidate that doesn’t take the presidency or even the idea of dignity seriously, and that is something very different.
The reason why this matter is that while it’s okay for the president to have a laugh along with the rest of us, someone who is as vulgar as Trump or who doesn’t recognize the power of words to hurt is a commander-in-chief who is incapable of supplying the most important quality we need in a president: moral leadership.
It’s true we need a president who understands the great issues facing the nation at home and abroad (something that cannot be said about Trump). But the president is the person we turn to in times of need and crisis. It is he (or she) that can set the tone for the nation. Some have handled this responsibility well and achieved immortality (Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Reagan come to mind). Others have fallen short. But we have never yet had a president that acted as if moral leadership was unimportant.
Being presidential isn’t about being stiff. It’s about acting like a person of dignity and seriousness of purpose in public and setting an example. It may not be what the crowds that turn out to see Trump want because the reason he generates big audiences and high television ratings is because he is a loose canon who will say anything, no matter how outrageous, that comes into his head. Being unpresidential may well have secured him the Republican presidential nomination.
But Trump’s frustrated advisers aren’t wrong. Trump hasn’t a prayer of winning the general election playing the load-mouthed buffoon we’ve seen on the campaign trail the last several months. He may well tone down his act and give himself more of a chance. But it’s doubtful that he can transform himself into a dignified person that can supply moral leadership because that just isn’t Donald Trump. And so long as that is true, his hopes of taking his comedy act to the White House are slim.