In a democratic state, it is more prudent to analyze the intended effects of what a leader says to his constituents than to analyze the actions of that leader directly. Admittedly, this has been difficult when considering Donald Trump and his advisers, as the general message coming out of his White House is not confined by any apparent train of thought or guiding vision. Instead, this message has taken the form of a series of gaffes with little in common insofar as subject matter or policy are concerned. At this point, simply examining one of Trump’s statements and calling him a liar is hardly analysis as much as it is the continuation of an existing pattern. It’s more important to ask why the man behaves this way, and what effect this behavior is supposed to elicit from his constituents.
An easily contrived, commonly cited and plainly incorrect explanation would be that Trump and all of his advisers are idiots. Per this line of thinking, the message being sent by the White House seems uninformed because “stupid is as stupid does” and Trump’s administration is simply inept. In this view, we elected a clown and produced a four-year Republican circus of a White House with a dancing elephant at the center of the ring.
In my opinion, nobody who wins a presidential election in the United States is stupid. To become president is an incredibly impressive feat, demanding an astounding amount of planning; either the President is a capable man or he has at least surrounded himself with capable people. Thus, I will take the fact that Trump is president to serve as evidence that he is not an idiot. That brings us to the much more important question: Why would someone who is not an idiot willingly portray themselves as such by making ignorant and easily discountable statements?
Even with some of the world’s most prominent speechwriters at his disposal, Trump’s addresses lack grammatical coherence or even a semblance of flow. With access to the entire American intelligence and military-industrial complex, I believe he must have known that his reports of both a fake Swedish terrorist attack and a supposed wiretapping of his campaign were completely unfounded. Those actions are not expressions of idiocy, but the intentional rejection of resources that would help Trump appear more respectable.
Manipulation generally implies a specific goal or desired outcome, and is rarely done aimlessly. What, then, is Trump’s intention in portraying himself as a systematically irrational person? What is the reaction Trump intends to elicit from his constituents, and how does this relate to his stated goal of remaining in power after the 2020 elections?
I believe that Trump acts the way he does because it is polarizing, and each episodic absurdity widens the information gap between both individuals and news outlets of varying political orientations. The divergence in material reported as fact by different media organizations over the past two months has not been accidental, but the seemingly intended result of the way in which Trump behaves as President.
In a capitalist society, news companies must either publish what sells or perish. This makes their responses to many events relatively predictable. When Trump or one of his advisers tells an easily discreditable lie, each of the major news networks (save our friends at Fox) immediately pounce, and the late night comedians lampoon the unfortunate harbinger of that day’s gaffe. These stories debunking Trump sell to the left, and the stories debunking those stories as “fake news” sell to the right. Trump has created a situation in which economic incentives drive the media to polarize the American people.
In a democracy, the government is a reflection of the people, and Trump has reverse-engineered that relationship. In my opinion, by intentionally portraying himself as an uninformed and dogmatic president, he has managed to elicit an uninformed and dogmatic base of supporters.
In the end, this deliberate debasement of the presidency is my biggest issue with Trump. As a political science major, my own education has been defined largely in terms of the legacies of many of this country’s great presidents. Invoking former presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln or even Ronald Reagan brings to mind an image of a poised leader, capable of serving as a source of inspiration. For this reason, the way Trump portrays himself is unforgivable.
While economic and diplomatic wounds that might arise from a Trump presidency will heal in time, his actions will be forever enshrined in American history textbooks. Ultimately, both future historians and laymen will judge the present, and I fear that they will do so harshly. The way Donald Trump is intentionally tarnishing the perception of the presidency will completely alter the way Americans will interpret our societal legacy, and possibly forever devalue the position of Commander-in-Chief. Precedent is a sneaky thing: subtle as it takes hold, yet strengthened with each second, reinforced with each of the man’s debasements.
Look to the present as compared to the past, and demand better. Demand truth, and eloquence and diplomacy. Look to the future and demand a President.
Tyler Zelinger is a College senior from Commack, New York.