In the weeks since the inauguration of Donald Trump there have been many claims, counter claims, gaffes, and developments that have kept the media and popular commentators very busy seeking to clarify, understand, and challenge the 45th President of the United States. As I watch the rollercoaster of events, I have been revisiting models of presidential leadership and reflecting on the ways these models might apply to Trump’s emerging style of governance. He fits some of the attributes set out in these models, but as I will argue here, his style is really one that I shall call ‘performative’. This is not performance, as it has been used elsewhere, but ‘performative’, which is understood as the use of ‘speech acts’ to consummate an action.
Modern presidents have to operate within a set of constraints that have been formally set out in the Constitution and that have evolved since our Founding. As these constraints have evolved so too have the behaviours and leadership style of presidents, and political scientists have sought to understand and explain the modern presidency. In 1960, Richard Neustadt published Presidential Power, in which he argued that presidents ultimately need to use the power of persuasion to push their political agenda through government. In his model, successful persuasion relies on the bargaining advantages that are inherent in the role, the expectations of those who engage with the President, and the strength of public opinion. Donald Trump enjoys many of these factors, but as yet seems to rely less on persuasion and more on pure assertion and bravado.
Psychological character typology
In 1974, James David Barber published The Presidential Character, which set out a fourfold psychological character typology for understanding different kinds of presidents: (1) active-positive, (2) active-negative, (3) passive-positive, and (4) passive-negative. Active-positive presidents are adaptive and have included Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy. Active-negative presidents are impulsive and have included John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and Abraham Lincoln. Passive-positive presidents are compliant and have included James Madison, William Howard Taft, and Ronald Reagan. Passive-negative presidents are withdrawn and have included George Washington, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight Eisenhower. Judging from his style thus far, Donald Trump appears most like an active-negative President with high impulsivity, as evidenced by his surprise and controversial press conference in February and the banning of CNN, BBC and the New York Times from a press briefing at the end of last week.
In 1986, Theodore Lowi published The Personal President in which he focussed on the ways in which presidential power increasingly depends on the direct communication with the masses. The advent of the Internet and in particular social media has allowed Donald Trump to communicate directly with his base in completely unmediated fashion. There is no filter for his speech, and his use of Twitter as a main medium of communication means that his messaging is highly reductionist and his appeal to his base is carried on a very personal level. Indeed, his own staff struggle to maintain consistency with his own statements and it is reported that they are trying to keep him off his phone.
Beyond these models, Trump has a further attribute that for me makes him more a ‘peformative’ President that anything else. The concept of ‘performativity’ was developed most notably by J. L. Austin, John Searle, and Judith Butler to capture the notion that a speech act can do more than just communicate. It can consummate an action, or it can construct or perform an identity. The classic example features a Priest at a wedding saying ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’, where the mere act of speaking brings about a change in status for the newly married couple. This use of ‘performative’ and ‘performativity’ is different from the term performance as found in dramaturgy, or anthropology since it focuses on the use of language and speech that create their own reality.
Donald Trump’s speeches
Trump asserts a large number of things where he appears less concerned about whether they are true or not, and more concerned about the effect, or impact that they have. His dystopian acceptance speech at the Republic National Convention in the summer of 2016, his 20 January Inaugural Speech, his 16 February press conference, and his 17 February rally in Melbourne Florida, all contained a number of speech acts that consummated an action. His famous phrase ‘I alone am your voice’ established a direct connection between the leader and the people. When he said ‘beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored’, and ‘nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it’, he presents himself as a personal saviour. When he describes the victim of a crime committed by an illegal immigrant as ‘one more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders’ he creates a vision of total fear predicated on the threat of continued immigration (RNC Speech).
He used even stronger rhetoric in his inauguration speech when he said ‘‘today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.’ Through these words, he seeks to empower and expand his base. Like his rally in Florida, billed as a moment to get back in touch with ‘the people’ (not his people but the people), this moment in the inauguration returns power to all the American people, even though a very small proportion of the American people actually voted for him (19%).
Threat to free speech
These speech acts can be challenged through concerted efforts to research, investigate and publish evidence that contradicts the White House and Trump’s version of events, and the presence of a free press along with guaranteed rights of free speech are a hallmark of modern democracy. Last week’s exclusion of some news media outlets from a White House press briefing demonstrates the fragility of Trump’s own performativity, and for celebrated journalist Dan Rather, takes us far beyond anything seen from past presidents:
‘The time for normalising, dissembling, and explaining away Donald Trump has long since passed. The barring of respected journalistic outlets from the White House briefing is so far beyond the norms and traditions that have governed this republic for generations, that they must be seen as a real and present threat to our democracy. These are the dangers presidents are supposed to protect against, not create.’
Feature photo by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr.
The opinions in The Freethink Tank’s Opinion category are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.