Trump is Bad at Being Mourner-in-Chief. Why does it matter?
Trump’s critics like to point out that the forty-fifth president isn’t very good – at all – at what I’ll call here the “ceremonial presidency.” This includes making calming statements at times of national crisis and emergency, honoring those who have served the nation and died in that service, and issuing appropriate statements. The president’s failings in this area are multi-faceted, and the most recent example of this is Trump’s reaction to the El Paso and Dayton shootings during the first weekend in August. The photo of the president and first lady with a baby orphaned by the El Paso shooter, with Trump inexplicably giving a thumbs up sign, seems likely to become a canonical image from his presidency. And not in a good way. This provides an opportunity for presidential scholars, especially those of us interested in communication, to contemplate why these kind of rhetoric turns out to be so important, and why it’s harder than it looks to get it right.
The usual Trump-critical voices have explained exactly why this photo was so offensive and how the president is falling short of the job in meaningful ways. Graeme Wood at the Atlantic breaks down the photo in detail, writing “If Trump had failed to visit El Paso, liberals would surely be criticizing him, rightly, for his absence. So it isn’t his presence alone that makes the photograph odious. First there are the smiles, so chipper in the aftermath of mass murder.”
Dan Drezner also writes about Trump’s failure to perform the ceremonial function of the presidency, noting, “These are moments when a president can and should attempt to use their bully pulpit to reassure the nation that as the country mourns, action will be taken,” and conceding that this task is sometimes quite difficult.
The fact that Trump would not or could not perform this basic presidential function was perhaps most glaringly evident after John McCain died in August 2018. Trump was unable to, in the words of MSNBC’s Steve Benen, “issue a pre-written statement honoring the heroic American’s lifetime of service and lower the flag to half-staff.”
But just because something is basic doesn’t mean that it is easy. Indeed, misfires are not unheard of in the modern presidency - George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina is a pretty widely recognized example of that. Doing the bare minimum for these kinds of events should be straightforward, but crafting good, effective rhetoric after a national tragedy or disaster is a political challenge. It requires the kind of discipline that Trump seems to lack – off-the-cuff tweeting, of course, is a persistent feature of this presidency. It might also reflect a less experienced communications team than presidents usually have. Political scientists and pundits have started to embrace the idea that the ceremonial presidency is an important part of the job, but the way we talk about it still fails to recognize the difficulty of the task, and this failure represents a larger neglect of rhetoric and communication in the mainstream of the discipline.
The Obama era built a large audience for this skepticism about rhetoric as various sympathetic observers struggled to reconcile the president’s evident political talent on the campaign trail with his tumultuous and often frustrated policy efforts.
In response to these questions, empirical political scientists jumped in with the view that political rhetoric doesn’t matter much, despite mythology about FDR’s fireside chats and the charisma of TV-era leaders like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. What’s interesting now, though, is that as the consensus in the public conversation – among scholars and the kinds of political journalists who read or at least talk to us – has moved toward the position that rhetoric is largely beside the point. And ceremonial rhetoric seems perhaps the most easily dismissed – it’s pro forma and expected, persuades no one, and says nothing. In its absence, we now seem to know this isn’t really true. What are we missing?
First, effective ceremonial rhetoric requires an illusion about presidential power. Presidential rhetoric is also tightly bound to the power of the presidency; as the office has grown more complex and more powerful, rhetoric and communication have become a bigger part of the office. Communication, when it works, modestly redistributes some of that power, by calling citizens to action, explaining the logic of policy decisions and offering accountability (see Stephen Hartnett and Jennifer Mercieca on how this started to break down many years before Trump). Again, it would seem like ceremonial rhetoric has a totally different purpose because it’s not about defending or selling policy decisions. But crisis rhetoric, especially when combined with travel to the site of an incident, serves as a reminder that the power of the presidency still does belong to the nation’s citizens.
George W. Bush’s “bullhorn moment” on Sept. 14, 2001, is an illustration of how this redistribution of the power of the presidency can happen through both visual rhetoric and spontaneous remarks. As the workers on the World Trade Center site shouted that they couldn’t hear the president, he responded, “I can hear you! The whole world hears you, and the people who knocked down these buildings will hear from all of us soon.” The controversial policies foreshadowed by the statement bring its other significance into even starker relief; in the moment, the president harnessed the power and visibility of the office to amplify the workers’ voices. Similarly, Obama’s response to the murder of nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, including his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, brought the weight of the presidency to that situation and community. These shifts are fictions; nothing actually changes about presidential power. But they are powerful and they require both a command of political situations and a confident enough grip on the presidency to share its power in these moments.
The idea that ceremonial rhetoric should be easy also defies something fairly intuitive: it is easier for presidents to be divisive than unifying. This is especially true under conditions of party polarization, but the last decade or so did not invent political divisions. These divisions, instead, lurked within party coalitions. Research by Amnon Cavari illustrates that an important mechanism behind the impact of presidential rhetoric is mobilize partisans. (Frances Lee also writes about the partisan impact of presidential involvement in a legislative context). Tragic circumstances can mitigate this tendency toward division, but unifying the nation under a common narrative, even about a tragic event, is hardly a national or inevitable process.
Instead, communication that seeks to unify needs to draw skillfully on shared symbols – also not something that happens automatically. Rhetoric scholars Mary Stuckey and Joshua Ritter explain why words like “freedom” or “liberty” or “equality” might seem at once so commonplace as to lack meaning, and yet perform a crucial rhetorical role. They define these “ideographs” as “culturally bound summary phrases” that “function as attempts to unify a diverse audience around a vaguely shared set of meanings.”
They write, “Ideographs possess a certain fluidity.... This is how they function discursively and why they are so powerful—they possess a certain ‘givenness’ that is also highly variable.” In this regard, ceremonial rhetoric is a particularly demanding ideographic task – often requiring discussion of concepts like good and evil, heroism, and invocation of religious or moral language that will resonate with a wide range of Americans. Bill Clinton’s address after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 is an example of how this can be done effectively.
There are a few key takeaway points from the research on this subject: achieving any kind of unity is a rhetorical accomplishment, and engaging in this kind of ceremonial leadership actually requires presidents to cede control and take risks. It’s true that it doesn’t take much work to avoid awkward, poor taste photos or to say a few nice words about someone who has recently died. But to pull this off well requires grace and gravitas. These are not qualities to take for granted in a president.
Of course, not all ceremonial rhetoric is created equal. Speaking to the nation after a tragedy – particularly a violent one – is a different matter than participating in the White House Easter Egg roll or pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving. But this gives us an opportunity to contemplate a distinction I’ve written about before, between norms and democratic values. What are the things we expect presidents to do just because they’ve become traditions? What kinds of gestures and words really matters for a democratic society? And how many of these gestures give the illusion of transparency, accountability, and access without meaningfully doing anything to counterbalance presidential power? Trump’s presidency has cracked some of these questions open. The answers may be less obvious than we think.