Watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick Vietnam documentary, we listen in (via White House tapes) on LBJ and later Nixon as they agonize about the war with advisers and confidants. In the process we hear the full range of sentiments expressed by presidents speaking confidentially—often angry, full of bluster and invective, and certainly not above calling this or that antagonist “a son of a bitch,” or worse. LBJ in particular was known for his crassness—a president who on occasion humiliated interlocutors by forcing them to continue a conversation in the men’s room, as he relieved himself in a stall. And Nixon became notorious for the ugliness of his utterances, a man whose default crudeness, amplified by isolation and paranoia, became downright lurid.
But that was in private. Which brings up what I want to discuss—namely, the issue of a leader’s private self vs. his public one. Remember the hilarious Saturday Night Live “Reagan Mastermind” skit, in which Phil Hartman played Reagan as a president who presents himself as a genial and pleasant know-nothing in public—only to transform into a brilliant, brutal, and cynical tactician once the doors are closed and he’s alone with his advisers? Partly the skit capitalized on particulars of Reagan’s personality; but it also tacitly acknowledged, and comically exploited, the fact that every president manufactures a public persona to serve as a way of camouflaging, and prettifying, certain grim aspects of the exercise of power. That this split between private and public demeanor constitutes a fundamental reality, indeed requirement, of holding the office has always been taken for granted (thus its usefulness for comedy.) Practically by definition, the public president was a cleaned-up human.
Day after day we find ourselves confronting the remarkable prospect of a president who in official and even ceremonial settings strikes the garrulous, profane, reckless, and nasty notes that other presidents carefully kept hidden. Thus, in the brouhaha over the NFL protests, the president tweets that any team owner with a protesting player should “get that son of a bitch off the field.” On the floor of the UN, he threatens to “totally destroy” North Korea, mocking and taunting its leader as “Rocket Man.” Both these remarks sound exactly like a president venting in private to his confidants—before collecting himself and going out to offer a more tempered, composed and sober message to America and to the world.
But now there is no more tempering, no more filtering, no more collecting oneself, and no more composure. With Trump, the public presidential self has not only been elided into the personal one; it seemingly has been dispensed with altogether. Only in the rote cadences of lines read from the teleprompter does a ghost of that presidential presence linger.
To be sure, Trump did not invent this trend; among prior presidents who sought to exploit and market their personal selves, one would surely cite Bill Clinton, with his underwear talk and Blues Brothers shtick on TV. But in Trump, the phenomenon reaches a whole new level; indeed, the abdication of the public and formal self has been the essence of his political appeal all along. Again and again he has broadcast abrasive remarks one previously could imagine being aired only in private. For instance, can’t you imagine a candidate joking with an adviser that “we really should be locking Hillary up”? Or coining deprecatory nicknames, a la “Little Marco,” for his opponents? Or boasting about the size of his crowds—or his penis? Or joking crassly that a journalist asked a tough question because she’s menstruating? These are the kind of offensive remarks politicians have long made in private. But Trump blares them loud.