Politics

Trump Falls on Ceremony. He Should Stop Trying.

Other nations separate the kingly and managerial functions. The U.S. doesn't, so it has to put up with the consequences.
Corrected

Not his thing.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Whatever Americans think of how President Donald Trump is handling the policy-making part of his job, for a showman, he's unquestionably making a hash of the ceremonial aspects of the job. But maybe, in the media age, expectations have become unfair too; in much of the rest of the world, unlike in the U.S., those running the government share responsibility for symbolism.

Trump is consistently late to react to tragedies and painfully clumsy when finally speaking about them. Trump's reaction to the Charlottesville clashes, which resulted in a death, required days of clarifications and self-justification. His speech following the Las Vegas shooting was so peremptory and cliched that it sounded hypocritical to some.

The art and the skill of a leader in making such speeches is to make a deep emotional impression, but Trump appears to lack the necessary sensitivity for that. He complained about the budgetary burden of fixing Puerto Rico while visiting the ravaged island (tossing paper towels may not have been the best idea, either). He apparently told a fallen soldier's widow -- though he denies it -- that her son had known what he'd signed up for, and now he's been embroiled for days in a controversy of his own making over whether he's doing as much as previous presidents to console Gold Star families.

Politically divided as it is and fragile as it looks, the U.S. doesn't really need any of this -- but Trump keeps stepping in it because that's what expected of a U.S. president. Walter Bagehot, the 19th century British thinker, wrote in "The English Constitution" about the clear distinction between the symbolic power of office and the job of government:

The Queen is only at the head of the dignified part of the constitution. The prime minister is at the head of the efficient part. The Crown is, according to the saying, the “fountain of honour;” but the Treasury is the spring of business.

That doesn't mean that prime ministers are exempt from reflecting the public mood in times of crisis and responding; their parties have to be elected after all. Margaret Thatcher famously wrote a personal letter to every family that lost someone in the Falklands War -- but that, much less phone calls, had not been expected of her. It was, in the end, her way of acknowledging personal responsibility for the war. British Prime Minister Theresa May was heavily criticized for not visiting the site of the Grenfell Tower fire quickly enough. But the main expectation is that the government will respond efficiently to the crisis with policy. In her speech after, the prime minister dwelled on the details of the government response, leaving the brief emotional part for last. 

Germany, too, largely leaves the "dignified part" to the largely ceremonial president. Chancellor Angela Merkel had held her post for more than four years before making her first appearance at fallen Bundeswehr soldiers' funeral, and even then, it was ultimately to clarify a policy. Merkel explained why Germany had sent troops to Afghanistan, where the servicemen had been killed, and promised the troops wouldn't stay there "one day longer than necessary." (In Russia, the president too hogs all the roles -- and Putin takes neither pride nor pleasure in them, as his disastrous response to the Kursk submarine crisis early in his presidency showed. But Russians, unlike Americans, don't expect the president to react to every military casualty.)

The U.S. doesn't have a system in which the various sets of duties can be distributed between a presidency or monarchy, a prime minister's job and multiple faction leaderships in parliament. In the U.S., according to the Congressional Serial Set,

The president simultaneously serves to perform functions that parallel the activities of a king or queen in a monarchy and the prime minister or premier in a parliamentary democracy. 

That's unfair to the office holders, who are expected to draw up policies, make everyday executive decisions and manage a vast bureaucracy as well as carry out a wide range of demanding symbolic duties -- from throwing out ceremonial first pitches at baseball games to consoling the families of those who die for the country. Some historical circumstances may call for a kingly president, someone to embody the U.S. global leadership as well as the dignity of its domestic institutions. Others may call for a policy wonk, and yet others for a stellar negotiator and manager.

Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon weren't much good at the symbolic part of the job, either. Ronald Reagan was remembered as a president who was great at articulating the nation's hopes and grief. And while George W. Bush was much criticized for the Iraq War, his most iconic moment was his bullhorn speech to emergency rescue workers days after the Sept. 11 attacks, a speech that set up the war on terrorism that followed.

Degrees of competency in this clearly vary, though Trump is on one extreme end of the spectrum. Every time he manages to look "presidential" for a few minutes, he then destroys the impression with another gaffe or reality-TV antic. The U.S. demands even more ceremony of its presidents than other countries in part because of the expectation that the head of state is also the moral-authority-in-chief where Christian leadership is prized and the president is expected to channel those attitudes.

Trump never has, not on the campaign trail or after. His big speeches were never unifying or optimistic and so many voters never saw him as presidential. He won anyway because the ceremonial duties are less important than other worries Americans have. He could certainly delegate some of that to his vice president or others; but Trump likes to be center-stage. The question is, if he wasn't elected to be good at the ceremony, does it matter that he's awful at it?

It shouldn't matter. It's unreasonable to expect one person to be both king and store manager. But that means being patient with the inevitable failures of the one person who is supposed to be everything at once. Today, quite possibly, the U.S. needs a disruptor of tradition, someone who holds a mirror to a divided nation so his successor can try to heal it. By not following the cues or satisfying expectations, perhaps Trump at least fulfills that role. He should stop pretending he cares about that side of the job and let others do more of what he clearly can't.

(Corrects third paragraph to reflect Trump's call was to the fallen soldier's widow.)

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:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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