The Unpersuasive President

Trump effectively channels resentment. But he can't explain his government.

Rallying the troops, in Berkeley no less.

Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

The presidency is a rhetorical arena. In the famous formulation of political scientist Richard Neustadt, “The power of the presidency is the power to persuade.”

There are reasons to wonder about that thesis. Barack Obama was the most eloquent president in recent history. He seemed very persuasive when he had a huge Democratic majority in Congress, much less so when Republicans took over.

Donald Trump's presidency is surely a rhetorical exercise. Trump's oratory and policies have aligned in some key areas, such as immigration and his administration's attack on climate science and environmental regulation. But his lack of understanding, or even curiosity, about complex issues or the real-world consequences of his actions often leave policy divorced from speech.

So far, Trump's words have vastly outnumbered his deeds. Many of those words contradict his previous statements or even the core tenets of his campaign, such as his vow to rip up the nuclear accord with Iran on Day One of his presidency or to scuttle NAFTA with Canada and Mexico.

"He's very different from any previous president," said Jennifer Mercieca, a scholar of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University. "And also it might not matter that he's so incoherent."

Does it matter?

A Time magazine reporter began an interview with Trump on March 22 by asking if the president wanted an overview of the story the reporter had in mind. This was Trump's reply:

Yeah, it’s a cool story. I mean it’s, the concept is right. I predicted a lot of things, Michael. Some things that came to you a little bit later. But, you know, we just rolled out a list. Sweden. I make the statement, everyone goes crazy. The next day they have a massive riot, and death, and problems. Huma [Abedin] and Anthony [Weiner], you know, what I tweeted about that whole deal, and then it turned out he had it, all of Hillary’s email on his thing. NATO, obsolete, because it doesn’t cover terrorism. They fixed that, and I said that the allies must pay. Nobody knew that they weren’t paying. I did. I figured it. Brexit, I was totally right about that. You were over there I think, when I predicted that, right, the day before. Brussels, I said, Brussels is not Brussels. I mean many other things, the election’s rigged against Bernie Sanders. We have a lot of things.

This is nonsense on top of falsehood. (NATO was in the counterterrorism business long before Trump ran for president.) But does it matter? Democratic consultant Anita Dunn described it this way, in an email:

Trump doesn't use communications to persuade. He uses it to fire up his base, to try to intimidate opponents and to bully the media into accepting his alternative narrative. With the exception of his speech to the joint session of Congress, which was an effective speech in the 'traditional' sense of presidential communication, in this space, as in so many others, he is playing by his own rules.

One question is whether Trump's chaotic rules will permanently degrade presidential speech. Like much of American government, the presidency is accretive, a product of norms and experience, repetition and adaptation. But speech is central to it.

Government itself is in part a process of rhetoric, wrote Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson in their book, "Deeds Done in Words." The Founders, they wrote, "created a structure ordered by general and interlocking functions in which much was unspecified and, hence, could be negotiated through interaction among the three branches of the government, that is, through processes infused with rhetoric."

It's difficult to apply this template to Trump, who often fails to exhibit the respect for words, or interlocutors, required to make any such system function.

Trump's rhetoric caroms around the capital in part because his feelings do. Nasty, manipulative China is suddenly a buddy, led by the "outstanding" Xi Jinping. Better, cheaper health care for everybody was fine, but had to make way for lousier, more expensive health care for many.

"The American electorate doesn't have a high degree of confidence in him, and maybe that's in part because of the way he talks," said Mercieca.

Trump's chaotic voice hasn't cost him partisan support or the ardor of his base. "I do think that there's a real intellectual risk in being too focused on our own perspectives when it comes to Trump; obviously some people find his political appeals, well, appealing," wrote political scientist Julia Azari in an email. She continued:

He remains popular among Republicans, and Republicans in Congress have generally stuck with him. This isn't the same as party leadership. He's offering frameworks that appeal to the party base but not ones that help empower Republican members of Congress to explain why what they are doing actually fits those frameworks, or speak to broad understandings of what the problems are and how we solve them.

In other words, Trump does very well channeling resentments, but he can't explain his own government. As Thomas Edsall wrote in the New York Times, he may not need to.

It is Trump’s willingness to violate the boundaries of conventional discourse that has granted him immunity to mainstream criticism. Pretty much everything he does that goes overboard helps him. He is given a free hand by those who feel in their gut that he is fighting their fight — that he is their leader and their defender. As the enemy of their enemies, President Trump is their friend.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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