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The world was laughing at Donald Trump. He had taken the stage at the United Nations in September and opened with one of his signature Trumpian boasts, bragging that he “has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” And the world’s diplomats laughed, their guffaws migrating across the room as the U.S. president’s remarks were translated into the diplomatic corps’ native languages.

It was, to this president, his worst nightmare. Donald Trump has always feared being the punch line — and he’s spent much of his life being the butt of jokes from the elite, the fancy Manhattanites who still see the brash developer as a florid, classless braggart. His presidential run was fueled to some degree by the infamous White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011, where President Obama led Washington’s elite in laughter at Trump’s expense, needling his hit TV show, The Apprentice, which had reinvigorated Trump’s stalled business empire and rebranded the bankruptcy king as a business savant. The black tie–clad newsmakers and journalists laughed at Obama’s mere ironic mention of Trump’s “credentials and breadth of experience.”

Trump’s embarrassment at the event, the New York Times reported, “accelerated” his efforts to gain respect in Washington, D.C., and his subsequent presidential campaign was “driven by a deep yearning sometimes obscured by his bluster and bragging: a desire to be taken seriously.”


Plenty of people have wanted the presidency over the years. Bill and Hillary Clinton each spent decades in pursuit. Men like John Kerry, John McCain, and Joe Biden have all reached for the ring on multiple occasions — but not since Lyndon Johnson has anyone needed the presidency as much as Donald Trump.

Robert Caro, LBJ’s biographer, has spent decades tracing Johnson’s rise to power, revealing how a determined outsider made it to the top of the U.S. Senate and then to the White House. LBJ’s early co-workers recounted how the ambitious man from the Texas hill country “couldn’t stand not being somebody — just could not stand it.” For Johnson, the respect that would flow from the presidency drove him for decades. Before an assassin’s bullet in Dallas changed the course of history, Johnson stood on the edge of political oblivion, relegated to vice president, working under a man whose associates referred to him as “Uncle Corn Pone.” Caro’s masterful fourth volume of his decades-long effort to profile LBJ describes the Texan’s six years leading up to the White House as fundamentally “a story about what being without power can mean in a city in which power is the name of the game: in a city as cruel as Washington.”

Once LBJ had achieved the presidency, he reveled in how he’d upended the power structure. Mark Updegrove, head of the LBJ Foundation, recalls how LBJ loved to rub his success in the face of the East Coast establishment: “He would call meetings together in his office and he’d say, ‘It’s very interesting. I look at this table and we have three people from Yale, and we have two people from Harvard, and we have one person from Dartmouth, and the president of the United States from Southwest Texas University Teachers College.’”

Donald Trump fits the same mold of someone who, as the New York Times once wrote, has long been “underestimated as a court jester or silly showman” but has nonetheless “muscled his way into the Republican elite by force of will.” Just before the New Hampshire primary in 2016, at a moment in the campaign where he’d already exceeded every expectation, Trump bragged, “A lot of people have laughed at me over the years. Now they’re not laughing so much.”

Occupying the Oval Office isn’t everything Trump hoped and dreamed it would be. And the world is still laughing at him.

The pursuit of the presidency sparkled in Trump’s eyes since the 1980s. He first publicly considered running in 1988, then actually did — briefly — in 2000, and flirted again in 2012. After that, as he considered the 2016 race, Trump told the Times, “I realized that unless I actually ran, I wouldn’t be taken seriously.”

The presidency was, for Donald, the ultimate prize: the perfect melding of power and respect. And then, as implausibly as the campaign began, it ended. The presidency was his.

Yet halfway through Trump’s term, every day seems to underscore his disappointment in the power of the presidency. Occupying the Oval Office isn’t everything Trumped hoped and dreamed it would be. And the world is still laughing at him.


Nearly two years into the job, Trump has learned very little about how to make the more complicated (and slower) levers of the presidency work. He still tweets in anger at the actions of his own government, watching Fox News from the White House residence during his “executive time,” as if he’s a regular viewer at home — not the person sitting atop the entire enterprise. He still organizes rallies with his unstintingly loyal base when he needs a rush of approval and love, rather than pursuing the far more difficult task of achieving mass approval through hard-fought achievement. He is someone who likes to look busy, rather than actually be busy. He likes to look powerful, and in so doing, so nakedly and needfully, he underscores what little power he actually has. Trump is an instant-gratification president for an instant-gratification age.

For example: The president has recently taken to filming short, almost daily videos in the Rose Garden, unloading talking points on viewers about how he’s making America great again. There appears to be little reason for the videos beyond simply giving Trump the impression he’s doing something rather than nothing. According to New York’s Olivia Nuzzi, “five current and former officials from both Donald Trump’s White House and campaign as well as one former official from the Trump Organization [say] the purpose of this on-camera exercise is simple: It makes him feel (and, he believes, look) good.”

The videos are a Trumpian update to what has long been understood as the only absolute power the presidency actually has: the power to command attention. The president can make others care about a topic simply because he’s president — much of a president’s inherent power comes simply from stature and the ability to cajole and coax others to pay attention. But that alone does not lead to respect. And in some cases, it leads to the hard opposite.

Trump is an instant-gratification president for an instant-gratification age. He is someone who likes to look busy, rather than actually be busy.

These inherent limitations at the heart of the presidency have been well-known to generations of political scientists. Richard Neustadt’s seminal 1960 book, Presidential Power, outlined it simply: “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” As he wrote, “The essence of a President’s persuasive task is to convince such men that what the White House wants of them is what they ought to do for their sake and on their authority.”

Teddy Roosevelt, of course, had a simpler term for the true power of the presidency: the bully pulpit. He originally meant it in what was then the widely known usage of “bully,” a synonym for superb, wonderful, grand — a phrase Roosevelt used regularly to compliment others’ great work: “Bully for you!” Good for you!

Over time, his framing of presidential power has been updated by subsequent presidents — including Teddy’s relative, FDR, who modernized the pulpit through his fireside chats — and eventually the phrase was codified by William Safire, who for a generation served as the official steward of the political lexicon and defined the presidential bully pulpit as “the active use of the president’s prestige and high visibility to inspire or moralize.”

The president can, effectively, set the agenda for everyone else — and Trump has done that more effectively than anyone before, using his ability to provoke and divide to ensure that he drives every news cycle. World leaders, the media, and Americans — both #MAGA and #Resistance alike — wake up each day and now reflexively check Twitter. His rallies make such good TV that during the 2016 campaign, cable news channels actually preferred to broadcast an empty podium, awaiting Trump, than provide live coverage of Hillary Clinton actively making a speech. Yet from the earliest days of his presidential campaign and carrying forward to his “American Carnage” inaugural address and into the Oval Office, Trump’s use of the presidential bully pulpit has a much greater emphasis on the modern usage of “bully,” his Twitter feed a daily cudgel for his enemies, no matter how small or insignificant.

With a more effective leader — and one more focused on the day-to-day of running a government and making deals — Trump’s Twitter feed could have been a potent weapon unlike anything the world had seen before. Yet even here, with this unprecedented tool, Trump’s threats on Twitter carry less weight than they did before. His ability to set the daily agenda remains unparalleled, but his lack of engagement in following through on the agenda — of doing the hard work necessary to make deals in Congress or on the international stage — undermines his own power. For Trump, Twitter is simply a tool for distraction and venting.

Robert Caro, who through his work on LBJ has become perhaps the most careful student of presidential power, says that his research makes him think Lord Acton’s famous maxim, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” actually doesn’t get it quite right. To Caro, the effect of power is more subtle: “Power reveals — it doesn’t always reveal you for the better, but it reveals.”

Giving Donald Trump all the power of the presidency has offered him a simple, rude revelation: Even if people have to stand when you enter the room, they can still laugh at you.