Each day of the Trump era seems to bring strange new objects to the national punchbowl. The newly minted president publicly obsessed on his inaugural crowd size. He claimed pervasive voter fraud. He reviewed television shows. He attacked the independence of the judiciary. He has called into question the fairness and good faith of Nordstrom’s, further deepening our class divide on tie selection.
It is difficult for an easily outraged columnist to ignore the president’s bad-boy, shock-jock, schoolyard, barstool, mental-ward provocations. But the Trump phenomenon raises more fundamental questions, including about the nature of political communication. Has Donald Trump permanently changed the way that politicians win office and speak once they assume it? Is Trump’s use of Twitter in the same category of revolutionary change as the political pamphlet (see Thomas Paine) or the barn-burning stump speech (see William Jennings Bryan) or the radio (see Franklin Roosevelt)?
There is little doubt that the Trump precedent will amplify an existing trend among communication advisers to candidates. During my professional life as a speechwriter, I often heard the point made that people hate written speeches and reward extemporaneousness. In some ways, John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign was a dry run for this approach, with the candidate making much of his daily bull sessions on the press bus. It was seriously proposed to me during George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign (on which I was chief speechwriter) that the president deliver his convention address from notes. Even Trump did not attempt this feat, but the enemies of texts, Teleprompters and speechwriters have plenty of ammunition in their quest to promote authenticity as spontaneity.
There is no doubt that Trump tapped into public impatience with typical-sounding politicians, embodied by the Democratic nominee for president, who seemed to have talking points in her soul. People who know Hillary Clinton would dispute that characterization vigorously. But many voters could not imagine four scripted, stilted years of presidential rhetoric. At least, it was widely argued, Trump says what he thinks.
That struck me as an odd way to choose a president, especially given what Trump actually thinks. But the tweet, briefly expressing a taunt, appears triumphant. Spontaneity reigns in presidential splendor.
Yet there are two caveats, at least as huge as Trump’s crowd size. First, Trump’s communication style has not even begun to be tested. It is at times of tragedy, grief and the solemn expression of national purpose that the words of a president are assessed by history. Moments such as these usually require both thought and craft. Words are used to empathize, to heal, to reach out, to uplift, to speak from the undivided heart of the country.
There is no evidence that Trump is capable of this kind of communication; there is much evidence he is not. In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, Trump’s instinct is to take credit for his own foresight and to employ events as justification for his own agenda. There are few things more repulsive than narcissism at a time of grief. In moments demanding empathy, Trump may use a text and sound inauthentic, or not use a text and sound indifferent.
The second caveat is that we don’t know the ending of Trump’s story. His style of communication is attractive now because it helped him overcome nearly impossible political odds. But in, say, the fourth and final year of a failed presidency, Trump’s tone and approach – his insults, his self-centeredness, his strange inability to discern appropriateness – may appear in a different light. A virus produces antibodies. Americans may become exhausted with his shtick. The decency of the country may be deeper than the Trump phenomenon.
I’m betting on it, but who knows? The final measure of Trump’s aggressive authenticity may be somewhere in the middle, as the truth of this matter may be somewhere in the middle.
The requirements of presidential communication are symbolized for me by the rigors of one day: Sept. 14, 2001. In the morning, President Bush spoke at the National Cathedral: “Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end, and the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.”
Later that day, Bush held a bullhorn on smoldering rubble in New York and promised, spontaneously: “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Both text and heart. Both prayer and bullhorn. Both needed by an American president.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.