Presidential Performativity

Welcome back, dear readers, to 2017! It is the first week of the semester, and I am slowly but surely getting back into the swing of things. I am buried under lesson plans, grant applications, and other deadlines, but I’ve had a blog post on my mind for a while now, and it seems like this is the perfect moment to write it.

In my 30+ years, I have never had much interest in the rituals and pageantry involved in the United States Presidency. The President has many responsibilities that fall outside of the Constitutionally mandated duties of the executive. I’m talking about events such as the Annual Turkey Pardon, which is officially named the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation (I admit, that as a vegan, I find this particular event especially farcical), or the Easter Egg Roll. They have always seemed frivolous and a bit silly–the President may be dropping bombs one minute and helping children find eggs the next. However, in light of the Obama Presidency and the impending Presidency of Donald Trump, I have been reconsidering what these rituals mean, particular from a performative perspective. I’ve written about ritual before, and the significant role it plays in a culture or society’s sense of self and history. When I started thinking of Presidential rituals as a performative aspect of the Presidency, I realized that I now see them very differently.

The role of President has performative aspects, some of them enshrined in the Constitution, such as the State of the Union (but which does not legally have to be a speech, simply a written report), and others, which come with the office and may change over time, such as the Turkey Pardoning, which only became an annual event in the first Bush Presidency. These events are certainly for show, and seem meant to humanize the Commander-in-Chief, so they do not appear too much to be a lofty, inaccessible figurehead. The US President is responsible for being the country’s public face both domestically and abroad. This differs from countries in a semi-presidential system, where a President might appoint a Prime Minister to handle the legislative duties, leaving the PM free to be the domestic public face of the nation (for example, France). This obviously also differs from parliamentary monarchies, in which a Prime Minister or President is responsible for the legislative duties, while the monarch and associated royals are the public face for the nation.

It probably goes without saying that President Obama has been especially excellent at these public, performative components of the Presidency. The 2016 year in review of photos, chosen by White House photographer Pete Souza, illustrates some of these moments: Obama at Halloween, Obama at Easter, Obama making speeches at difficult times. Throughout his 8 years, President Obama has cultivated a demeanor of calm, of dignity, and of grace that, regardless of your level of support for him, was a steadying, reliable presence in our nation. This steadiness has been a real advantage to his Presidency, even when it seemed he was too measured. Key & Peele’s “anger translator” memorably satirized this quality at the White Correspondents Dinner, and in this final video sketch.

Since the election, I’ve been pondering these rituals and performative moments in a Trump Presidency. Trump at Halloween, Trump at Easter, Trump making speeches at difficult times (say, the inevitable next mass shooting). And although Trump himself is a rather…performative individual, I am having a difficult time envisioning these moments. Why? Well, Trump is notoriously thin-skinned and peripatetic. He is precisely the opposite of the even-keeled, measured politician.*

And so, I’ve reflected back on Obama’s ability to handle these rituals and performances. I’ve re-considered his calm, measured demeanor–his Jedi-like state of being, as many have described it. And I realized that these performances do, in fact, have a purpose. They are more than just moments which humanize the person who is President; they are moments for the nation to be reassured, comforted, or otherwise told that the nation is stable, that it is “normal,” that it continues to function in spite of wars or domestic unrest. While that seems dishonest, perhaps, I would argue that these rituals are not meant to take a nation’s attention away from crises, but rather to assist us through them. And Obama has had a number of crises to assist the nation through: mass shooting after mass shooting, including a massacre of 5 and 6 year old children; dozens of police shootings of Black men; terrorist attacks in Europe; the war in Syria. He has been an unshakeable presence, which is both reassuring and comforting to the citizens of any nation.

But my analysis is not to suggest that an effective performance of the Presidency equals a “good” President. After all, I’d say that President Reagan was also excellent at these performative aspects–he was an actor, and comfortable around the public. He gave clear, effective speeches. He was great with a punchline. However, he was not not a great President, policy-wise. President Obama has not been a perfect President, of course–the expanded drone program, lack of effective diplomacy in Syria, NSA spying, mass deportations and holding centers for immigrants, etc. But, despite my somewhat natural inclination toward cynicism, I have found great admiration and respect for the way Obama has “performed” the office of the Presidency. In my reflections on his 8 years in office, I realized that I recall so many of these moment with fondness and even joy (yes even the Turkey Pardon, which he turned into a meta speech, with puns and journalist jokes). I will truly miss him as our President.

Which brings me back to President-Elect Trump. Nothing in his life and career suggest to me that he will match Obama’s ability to comfort, to reassure, or to stabilize with his presence and words. While Trump clearly loves public speaking, and having a crowd cheer his every word, he does not inspire others to greatness; he inspires them to fear and anger. He does not inspire others with language that motivates; he inspires by mocking others or getting a crowd to chant insults. He does not inspire with eloquence; his word salad and defense of the size of his penis have become infamous. His Twitter account, which is his major tool to communicate with the world, is a maelstrom of rudeness, self-defense, and strangely worded condolences.

The above Tweet is just one example of this seeming inability to demonstrate the empathy or grief required of a public figure, particularly the President. Trump offers no sympathy, prayers, or even thoughts, the bare minimum required of politicians to offer to those grieving a lost family member or colleague. He only mentions the funeral and its beauty, and then puts in a plug for law enforcement. There was no other Tweet or communication from him about this, nothing directed toward the family or the community of the officer.

So it is this discourse that concerns me. And the President’s primary job is not to speak perfectly and ensure everyone likes them, but it is critical that our leader(s) show a basic sense of empathy and grace under pressure. Based on his track record, Trump can do neither.

*I get the sense that perhaps Trump’s eldest daughter Ivanka will take over many of these rituals, particularly the ones directly involving children, but I have no particular evidence on which to base this speculation.

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