My wife has been watching The Crown on Netflix, a Golden Globe-winning period drama about Queen Elizabeth II. It has me thinking this week about one of the differences between the the British and American forms of government. In the U.K., the roles of Head of State (the Queen or King) and Head of Government (the Prime Minister) are separated, whereas in the United States, they are united in one role: the President.
The head of government sets and enforces policies, ruling over the bureaucracy. The head of state is a more symbolic role. It is a calling to be the chief representative of a people, the embodiment of their values and ideals. When we vote for a president, we perform a complex mental calculus that weighs a candidate’s qualifications for both roles.
Inaugurations are moments when the head of state role is ascendent. They feature oaths and speeches and parades and galas. The president’s policies are secondary to his temperament and the character he gives evidence to throughout the weekend.
Trump has promised for months that, once in office, he would act more presidential. I haven’t seen it yet. This weekend I saw a president declare war on the media, lash out at protestors through Twitter, and present “alternative facts” in an effort to claim his was the most well attended inauguration in history.
Trump’s inaugural address lacked the inspiring prose we’ve come to expect when leaders rise to the highest office in the land. Columbia University professor of English John McWhorter put it in his opinion piece, “How to Listen To Trump Every Day for Years”:
…there was the air of a diligent adolescent trying to put something down on paper but not quite hitting the mark. “America is totally unstoppable” sounds like a schoolyard brag. “We will bring back our borders” — where did they go? The “very sad depletion of our military” — it’s impossible to imagine Barack Obama, or even George W. Bush, phrasing it that way in a written speech.
One cannot help but contrast the new president with his predecessor. Trump is hot. Obama was cool. Trump is dumping the studied formality that made Obama seem so, well, presidential. I read this week that Obama survived his White House years by reading books. He read books an hour a night on average throughout his presidency. I’m sure this is a failure of my imagination but it’s hard for me to picture Trump reading something longer than a tweet.
This is not to say that Trump is ineffective as a communicator. I read an interesting piece a few months ago about how effectively Trump uses tools of persuasion in his speeches:
“Trump described everyone using two techniques:
– words that had never been used in politics before
– words that were visual. So every time you looked at the candidate being described you would look for confirmation bias.”
Example: Jeb Bush he described as “low energy”. “Low energy” had never been used to describe a candidate before so they stood out.
And whenever you looked Jeb, unless he was jumping around, you would automatically look for clues that showed he was low energy.
Now to be fair, these insights come from Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoon, who claims he trained for years as a hypnotist. So believe or discredit them as you wish. I haven’t read enough of Adams to assess his credibility, but his examples are compelling. I don’t agree with everything I’ve seen Adams write, but he is provocative. I’ve featured another one of his blog posts previously on the Weekend Reader: “Human Rights for Robots.”
Part of the president’s head of state role is to make the White House his headquarters. But never in modern times have we had a president so committed to not playing by the rules of Washington. He may not even live there much of the time, opting instead to retreat to Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan. Putting politics aside, reading about what it will take to get away from DC is fascinating. As Matt Ambinder described it in The Washington Post
Creating a permanent, sterile environment inside a 58-story, multi-occupancy building on one of the busiest streets in one of the busiest cities in the world poses an unprecedented challenge for the Secret Service and the military… Never before has a president lived among other people on weekends.
I have vivid memories of trying to take a taxi in Manhattan when President Obama was in town. It was a nightmare. I can’t imagine what it would be like if that happened every weekend.
How Trump will function as head of government will be determined in large part by the people he has advising him. So I found Ray Dalio’s assessment of Trump’s cabinet selections of interest. Ray is the founder of Bridgewater — the world’s largest hedge fund, a firm that specializes in studying global politics and macroeconomics. Ray’s team assessed the experience levels of cabinets across the last 9 presidents and found that Trump’s picks have the most years of C-suite business experience and among the fewest years of government/military experience.
Of course Trump’s kitchen cabinet may be more influential than his official cabinet. Most interesting in this group is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who along with Pence took over the transition team from Chris Christie. As this profile in New York Magazine put it,
Throughout the campaign, the depth of Kushner’s commitment to Trump’s reactionary agenda was surrounded by a bit of what Henry Kissinger — a Kushner admirer — would call constructive ambiguity. He didn’t grant on-the-record interviews or give a speech expressing his beliefs at the Republican National Convention. His decision to leave behind his business, his prior political affiliations, and quite a few friendships in order to serve Trump remains mystifying to many people who thought they knew him.
If you don’t know about Kushner and how Christie sent his father to prison and how Jared nearly lost his shirt on a single investment in New York, and how Jared rose to the role he’s currently playing for his father-in-law, you should read this. Jared and Ivanka both seem poised, calm, and serious — more so than Ivanka’s father, who seems to misunderstand the symbolic importance of every tweet he dashes off, whether it is about Saturday Night Live or America’s one China policy.
I watched an episode of The Crown with my wife on the night of the inauguration. It revolved around planning for her coronation. Her husband Philip proposed that, for the first time, they should broadcast the coronation on television. The tradition-bound English aristocracy were initially horrified by the idea of somehow making the royal tradition more accessible to the masses. They made Philip promise there would be no close-ups. Such modesty and formality seems quaint today but there was a dignity to it. It is a dignity that I miss in heads of state today.