Fresh Ideas: A president without precedent
At the end of every year, TIME magazine selects a “person of the year” for its cover. Nancy Gibbs, the managing editor, says this isn’t meant to be viewed as an “honor,” but simply an acknowledgement the person selected has had the “most influence, for better or worse,” during that year. Given our national craving for being in the spotlight — any spotlight — is it any wonder President-elect Trump called Ms. Gibbs to thank her “for the honor?”
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Ms. Gibbs expounded on how Mr. Trump had defied expectations and “broken all the rules.” In attempting to explain this phenomena, she also said Mr. Trump was a “familiar figure” to the American public due to his self-promotion and consequently his voters felt they “knew” him in a personal way. What does that really mean?
We may know more than we want to know about his private life (how many mistresses, wives, affairs), and not enough about everything he keeps hidden or downplays (taxes, debts, lawsuits, bankruptcies), but what do we know about his character? Nothing much. Yes, we know he’s loud, defensive, ego-driven, not devoted to truth-telling, but that’s supposedly his “public persona,” the persona his voters love and his campaign emphasized.
Why does he need the spotlight? Why does he need to hide his financial dealings? Why does he need to attack others for the slightest perceived slights? The answers to these questions would allow us to know him better. Only 40 percent of his voters, however, (according to Ms. Gibbs of TIME) said they cared about his “temperament,” or character.
What has been true, as we look at many past elections, is campaigns reward fighters and campaigns are dualistic in nature and one-dimensional. In other words, a candidate is presented in simplistic terms: one thing or its opposite. Here are a few examples: He’s either a man of the people or an elitist. He is the “real deal” or a “phony.” He’s either a leader or a boring intellectual. This one-dimensional thinking is a symptom of the laziness we exhibit ourselves and hear constantly on talk radio and television, and it does nothing to truly inform us about anyone or any issue.
The reality is governing is much harder than campaigning, and a candidate’s character is the best predictor of how he will do. Using James D. Barber’s classic study Presidential Character as a guide, Donald J. Trump falls into the “active/negative” category along with L. B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. (So do John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, and Herbert Hoover). Trump shares the following characteristics with them: a grandiose ego, an insecurity about who one is, a preoccupation with whether one is failing or succeeding, and a problem-managing aggression.
Today, as we listen to the testimony of Trump’s cabinet nominees state views that are at odds with what Trump himself has said, we may wonder how events will play out in real life. If something doesn’t turn out positively, will the buck stop at Trump’s desk or at the desk of his cabinet member who will be summarily fired?
No president, including Mr. Trump, knows the answers to how he will govern.
As we watch Mr. Trump, keep in mind Barber’s characteristics of an active positive — represented by Jefferson, F.D. Roosevelt, Truman, Ford, and G.W. Bush: self-confident, flexible, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and has the ability to rationally reason through tough, seemingly impossible choices.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.