Trumping Communicative Tradition: How Donald J. Trump is Reshaping Presidential Communication

It’s hard to imagine monolithic presidents of the past employing the Trumpian style of presidential communication.

What if Franklin Roosevelt had given his response to Pearl Harbor in 140 characters or less? “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Japanese Imperialism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”

What if Lyndon Johnson had live-tweeted the filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill? “Fake Tears Russell is old and out of touch with the REAL America! SAD!”

What if Richard Nixon had tweeted immediately after finding out Congress had subpoenaed him to turn in the Watergate Tapes? “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!”

While these hypotheticals seem anathema to the image that Americans have of past presidents, they represent the current paradigm shift that presidential communication is currently undergoing.

Presidential scholars like Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson have long held that presidential communication is both delicate and important.[1] They claim that each speech a president gives helps to define the moment they are in. Furthermore, the way that presidents speak can either advance or deter the progress of the nation. Presidents help the citizenry mourn its collective losses, celebrate its monumental successes, and understand itself in the process.[2] Ultimately, presidential speech matters, and Donald Trump’s oratorical tendencies threaten to radically alter decades of past communicative tradition.

One long-held tradition of presidential rhetoric surfaces in moments of national tragedy. In times of mourning, presidents take on the mantle of ‘National Eulogizer’, and help the nation process its grief.[3] When the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded in January of 1986, it was Ronald Reagan’s beautiful prose that helped the nation do just that. In his speech, Reagan beautifully eulogized the loss of the Challenger crew, telling the children who had watched the event in their classrooms that the lost astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”[4]  President Reagan helped the citizenry understand the loss, and encouraged it to not lose its sense of curiosity, or faith in the noble exploration of space.

It is hard to imagine President Trump being as eloquent. During the Presidential campaign, Mr. Trump’s success as a candidate relied heavily on his candid and often shocking rallies and speeches. After the shooting at the PULSE nightclub in Orlando in the summer of 2016, Trump’s first statement about the tragic incident focused mainly on the congratulations he was receiving for “being right” on terrorism.[5] Mr. Trump made no attempt to process the tragedy, and didn’t even care to mention the victims or the senselessness of the violence that had occurred.  The unvarnished rhetoric he currently employs will unlikely help the public process national events as past presidential rhetoric has.

In addition to interpreting events, presidential speech plays an important role in shaping them. When Harry Truman pushed the Marshall Plan through Congress, he purposefully remained silent and allowed his Congressional opponents to believe that they had the upper hand in negotiations. Despite getting almost everything he wanted, Truman never bragged, and instead bolstered the ego and stature of his Congressional opponents at his own expense.[6] This deft use of speech—or deliberate non-use of it—helped redefine the post-War world.

Conversely, President Trump has already embittered an already divided Congress and nation. He seems to relish insulting his Congressional opponents, particularly Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer who he claims is a “hypocrite” and “fake.”[7] While he has tried to improve his Congressional relations while pushing his plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, his mid-March legislative role out was just short of a political disaster.

Rhetoric can also be used to push the momentum of social movements or political opportunities. Even though he wasn’t able to accomplish many tangible results, John F. Kennedy used a televised address to the American people to forcefully come out in favor of civil rights. His public support and decision to label civil rights as a moral issue helped set the stage for the progress of the Great Society.[8] After JFK’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson used his first address to Congress to tie his civil rights program with the mantle of Kennedy’s legacy. He skillfully worded his speech to equate civil rights as the extension of a martyred president, making the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 much easier. [9]

President Trump has already proven somewhat maladroit at drawing the connections between his political agenda and the predominating political mood. After his electoral victory and inauguration, President Trump seemed to continuously re-litigate the 2016 election by claiming that millions of illegal votes had been cast.[10] Rather than attempt to move the nation together and push his political agenda forward, his statements seem to continuously remind the public that he lost the popular vote, and that bipartisanship is harder to achieve day by day.

It is clear that President Trump prefers more impromptu speech, than formal, pre-written remarks. When he has taken to the teleprompter, the results have produced either monotonous recitations of pre-written remarks, or dramatic portents of darkness and decay. The President’s inaugural seemed to fall somewhere in between. The America the President described was faltering and in crisis; its future was unclear and potentially disastrous.[11] The doom and gloom of the Trump inaugural address appears to stand in stark contrast to those of preceding presidents, who have come into office at arguably more uncertain times. Had Franklin Roosevelt taken such a stance in his first presidential address, perhaps the country would have had a lot more to fear than fear itself. Had Kennedy portrayed the state of the union as defined by, “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” as President Trump did, perhaps we would have been less willing to ask what we could do for our country, and less inclined to work towards the civic responsibility of the New Frontier.

Furthermore, while the media seemed to stand in uniform praise over the President’s first address to Congress, their commendation was mainly due to the fact that he was able to get through the speech without veering off message.[12] Their analysis seemed to delve less into the President’s message, and more into the fact that he did not employ his typical disjointed rhetorical style.

That address to Congress seemed to be the exception to the rule. Since President Trump began his administration, he has elected to use Twitter as a method to advance his agenda.  For example, he has been known to take to the social media platform to complain about the exorbitant costs of federal contracts, as well as to denigrate companies who were threatening to move jobs out of the country.[13] His corrosive and abrupt statements prompted decisive action, and caused several companies to change their policies.

At the same time, however, his shoot-from-the-hip style caused diplomatic chaos when Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington in February. President Trump expressed apparent antipathy to the two-state solution, which may reverse about four decades of American foreign policy in a single stroke.[14] Furthermore, in March the President met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In their joint press conference President Trump made cavalier jokes about past U.S. surveillance practices, which seemed to make everyone in the room, including the Chancellor, incredibly uncomfortable.[15]

But, beyond subject matter, President Trump’s sentence structure seems to be particularly suited to misdirection. The shortness of his sentences combined with his use of uncomplicated adjectives creates perfect sound bites for the media to consume. The circular, and often disjunctive nature of his speeches aims to inflate his own successes while drawing attention away from his failures. Perhaps the President’s unorthodox speaking style is why some have deemed him un-presidential, even though he is the president. The public expects presidential rhetoric to be inspiring, coherent, and visionary, a style that President Trump has yet to embrace.

While Presidential speech is a function of the men who have occupied the Oval Office, never before has it been used in the way it currently is now. Somewhat paradoxically, President Trump is using rhetoric to strengthen the power that presidential speech has, while systematically undermining its historic functions. By delegitimizing institutions like the media and Congress, President Trump makes it seem like his ideal world would be one where his words are the only ones that are heard or considered legitimate. But at the same time that he is attempting to increase the importance of rhetoric, he is undermining its very purpose. The presidency and its pulpit, when used properly, have the ability to lift up the citizenry and encourage the acceptance of shared democratic norms and notions.[16] So far, President Trump has used his powerful communicative platform to intensify, rather than mollify, the sharp divides that currently persist in our country.

Ultimately, the fate of presidential communication seems to be headed down one of two divergent paths. It could be the case that in four years’ time, the public will be so desperate for the lofty presidential rhetoric that they have come to expect from their leaders that they will demand extraordinary rhetorical ability in the next president. Conversely, the explosive protests and uptick in civic participation that has been evident since the President’s inauguration may signal that the public will want to redefine its relationship with its elected officials. Instead of viewing government passively and the President as an omnipotent demigod needed to unravel global events, the citizenry may begin to believe that the power of government is ultimately exercised through their own civic participation. Only time will tell, and perhaps, it will be in 140 characters or less.

Works Cited:

[1] Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs., and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2013. Print.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Reagan, Ronald. “Challenger Speech.” The White House, Washington D.C. 28 Jan. 1986. Speech.

[5] Tur, Katy. “Trump’s Tweets After Tragedy Often Strike Self-Congratulatory Notes.” NBCUniversal News Group, 13 June 2016. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

[6] Neustdat, Richard E. “Presidential power,” in Samuel Kernell and Steven S. Smith, eds., Principles and Practice of American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2000), pp. 334-58

[7] Hagen, Elliot Smilowitz and Lisa. “Trump Tweets Photo of Schumer with Putin: ‘Hypocrite!'” The Hill. N.p., 03 Mar. 2017. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

[8] Kennedy, John F. “Report to the American People on Civil Rights.” The White House, Washington D.C. 11 June 1963. Speech.

[9] Johnson, Lyndon B. “Address to Congress Following the Death of President Kennedy.” The Capitol, Washignton D.C. 27 Nov. 1963. Speech.

[10] Bershidsky, Leonid. “Trump’s Forever War of Diversion.” Bloomberg, 25 Jan. 2017. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

[11] Trump, Donald J. “President Donald J Trump’s Inaugural Address.” Presidential Inauguration of Donald J. Trump. The US Capitol Building, Washignton D.C. 20 Jan. 2017. Speech.

[12] Thrush, Glenn. “5 Key Takeaways From President Trump’s Speech.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Mar. 2017. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

[13] Lutz, Eric. “Trump Twitter: Here Are 5 times Donald Trump Has Tweeted Threats to US Businesses.” Mic. Mic Network Inc., 09 Jan. 2017. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

[14] Gaouette, Nicole, and Elise Labott. “Trump Backs off Two-state Israeli-Palestinian Framework.” CNN. Cable News Network, 16 Feb. 2017. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

[15] Graham, David A. “Donald and Angela’s Awkward Adventure.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 17 Mar. 2017. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

[16] Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs., and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2013. Print.