What does it mean to be “presidential”?
Literalists might say: “It’s whatever behaviour and affect a President exhibits.”
But most of us will have something more rigorous in mind. To be “presidential” means to be dignified but masterly, simultaneously courteous yet decorous, friendly in a self-contained sort of way. The problem with this view is that so many presidents throughout history have violated it, from Andrew Jackson and his smash-up-the-china parties at the White House to Bill Clinton’s novel deployment of cigars with Monica Lewinsky.
Donald Trump recently mocked the traditional idea of being presidential, explaining that behaving in that way is “a lot easier than what I do.” His demonstration of what he meant at a rally had the twin virtues of being amusing and appealing to his base.
From the very beginning of his campaign, Donald Trump has acted in ways that shatter our usual notions of what it means to be presidential. Think of his comment during the campaign to Megyn Kelly about canines and Rosie O’Donnell, his description of Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man” from the floor of the UN’s General Assembly, or indeed his steady stream of provocative tweets about world leaders, contentious domestic issues, and even members of his own staff.
Back around the time of the Republican convention in 2016, I wrote a column called “Dr. Donald and Mr. Trump” suggesting that Donald Trump was a bit like the Robert Louis Stevenson character Dr. Jekyll whose demonic alter-ego Mr. Hyde kept peeking through and upsetting his personality. No sooner had candidate Trump outlined some splendid plan for dealing with urban blight (say) than he suggested that Rafael Cruz, the father of Senator Cruz, was somehow involved with Lee Harvey Oswald. Yikes!
Back then, I was a reluctant, at-least-he’s-not-Hillary supporter of Donald Trump. As the months have gone by, however, and I have watched him pile up victory after victory—with his judicial appointments, his roll back of the regulatory environment, his handling of the economy, his bold and innovative foreign diplomacy — I have to wonder whether I was being too staid, too stuck in the mud.
True, Donald Trump is unlike any president before him. But I begin to wonder to what extent his style is an essential ingredient of his success. Even now, eighteen months into his first term, his brashness has the capacity to astonish and alarm. Think of his all-caps tweet to President Rouhani of Iran last month, or, just last week, his storm of tweets about the seemingly interminable investigation of Robert Mueller into Paul Manafort’s ostrich coat and other items of pressing concern to the Republic.
Donald Trump acts in ways that shock, unsettle, and upset the proctors of presidential protocol. But his boldness is not merely a matter of style. He is challenging the whole post-war world order and the sclerotic bureaucracy, domestic as well as international, that has grown up to tend and nourish it.
Are there risks to President Trump’s gambits? You betcha. But the United States had gradually — and under Barack Obama, not so gradually — settled into a swamp of bureaucratic, politically correct lassitude. Donald Trump has confronted that Leviathan in ways that are both novel and effective.
He was right when, a few days back, he mocked the usual idea of being presidential and said he acted in ways that were much more “fun.” Beyond that, however, he has done an enormous amount to pick apart the administrative state and “drain the swamp.” I very much doubt that Donald Trump is replicable. Nor, I hasten to add, would we necessarily want him to be. His great virtue is as a corrective. He is an enormous risk-taker whose value to the United States and the world is contingent on the accident of his having come along a moment of maximum economic stasis and governmental overreach. But come along at such a moment he did. So far, he has been a wild success.
Looking back at that column “Dr. Donald and Mr. Trump”— a dichotomy we might now express as a distinction between President Trump on the one hand and @realdonaldtrump on the other — I see that I sharply underestimated his political talents. He has had the most successful first year and a half of any president I can think of. At the same time, he has regularly upset keepers of the tablets of conventional wisdom. Is that “presidential”? I’d say Yes, but then I am willing to judge the pudding by its taste, not just the excellence and propriety of its recipe.