One reason for the discomfort (to put it mildly for some) regarding the carriage and demeanor of the 45th President of the United States has been the loss of security we have come to expect from the occupant of the Oval Officeacting “presidential.”
Following the 2004 Presidential Election, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 27% of Americans primarily chose their candidate on the basis of presentation, personality, likeability and character (Sadie F. Dingfelder, “A Presidential Personality”, American Psychological Association, Vol. 35, No.10). For a significantly greater percentage, these considerations were notable factors in the casting of votes. And so politicians, taking their cue from decades of mass media/pop media-political culture shaping, invested considerable resources in “imaging” presidential qualities according to the media-guided expectations of the populace.
Interestingly, while perceptions of composure, relatability, and earnestness scored high (i.e., that elusive “presence” or, alternatively, the softer side), Dingfelder found that “straightforwardness” did not. With a picture now worth more than a thousand words of policy or debate, the outward accidents (to use an Aristotelian category), replete with research-based directives on tie-color, posture, shading, and focus-group phraseology, came to mean more than the essential candidate. In other words, a significant portion of the voting populace cared more about sentimentality and comfortability than a candid exposition of principles and proposed policies as the outward manifestation of the essential, raw candidate. Consequently, an unacceptable image or, synonymously, failure to act presidential in (especially) a staged public forum (see C. John Sommerville, Why the News Makes Us Dumb and Daniel J. Boorstin’s “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America” disqualified the ctandidate: hence the near instantaneous demise of Michael Dukakis and inevitable disqualification of Chris Christie. They were poor actors.
The false sense of security arises from the viewer, the voter, entering the consciously-crafted narrative world of “security theater” fabricated by media and pop-cultural constructs and implemented by theatrical office-holders. Security theater (a bipartisan endeavor if there ever was one) offers measures that have no substantial, actual benefit but supposedly make the viewer feel better about, well, the favored socio-political metanarrative. It garners capital from “psychological security” (the cognitive science of how our brains perceive risks and interpret safety measures) to exploit how we react to risk in some deeply dispositional and counterintuitive ways. A couple examples of security theater would be TSA procedures at the airport or stadium screening measures (knowing we’ve all successfully brought in outside food and, ahem, “drinks”). An identifiable element of security theater includes the curious notion of trusting in random data, resulting in what psychologists call an “anchor effect”, begetting a reliance on, again, illogical or counterintuitive “sound bites”, talking points, or assumed factoids.
This observation seems rather indisputable given our expectation and acceptance of presidential spin and talking/data points for decades, perhaps achieving notable refinement in terms of equivocation during the Clinton administration. As counterintuitive and illogical as it now may seem upon reflection, confidence in President Clinton was then well-anchored despite a solicitous affair and clamor for impeachment because, throughout it all, he convincingly acted presidential before the media panopticon.
Politico’s Josh King, in an article entitled, “Dukakis and the Tank” (Nov. 17, 2013), articulates the point about “security theatre” and “anchor effect” in this way:
Like [Matt] Bennett, I too worked on the Dukakis campaign, and we went on to serve in the Clinton White House. I sat in countless meetings in which some smart as warned that a stop on the president’s schedule had the makings of a “Dukakis in the tank moment.” The caution usually came when some type of costume was involved, and the tank ride is still to this day invoked anytime politicians decline to put hats on their heads–as President Obama did earlier this year  when he was handed a Navy football helmet but refused to try it on. (“You don’t put stuff on your head if you’re president,” he said. “That’s politics 101.”) But the story of the disasterous tank ride also endures as an example of the broader laws of unintended political stagecraft.
“Political stagecraft”, then, is at least the theater where presidential acting takes place. It’s the prerequisite, the “101 course” according to President Obama, to the Oval Office.
The making of the acceptable, modern presidential candidate (that is, the one who truly acts presidential) has principally taken on the form of an on-screen icon to offer comfort and security to the nation that all is well, all is under control. Paul Ekman, in Psychology Today (“The President’s Personality: What trains do we, or should we, value in a president?”, 11 Oct 2016), articulated this ensconced phenomenon when he observed that the acceptable candidate should be characterized by a “lack of impulsiveness” but possess “toleration for ambiguity.” Agreeable to Dingfelder’s findings, politi-speak or spin should be more prized than straightforwardness and judgment because it was perceived to be presidential. In other words, political correctness ostensibly had already established the permissible boundaries of discourse, the appropriate venues for appearances with requisite sentimentalities, and what “appearing” looked like: hence, Hillary’s attempt at ethic common parlance while in the South or Obama’s broaching Ebonics in certain demographic forums. It’s all part of the act. Indeed, one might say it is the script we have come to expect and in which we take comfort. We feel secure when, in public, the President acts presidential for us. But make no mistake, it is acting and all acting is a pretending performance. And in that light, it truly is illogical (and I’ll-advised) to take security in an actor.
Let us then cede the point: Donald J. Trump does not act presidential. He offers little to no security for those accustomed to the anchor effect concomitant with presidential political stagecraft. The blanket has been pulled away. Rather, the 45th President clearly engenders insecurity on both sides of the aisle because, collectively, we have lost that sense of security, a false sense of security, that came with presidential security theater, that came with a fake performace. Trump is straightforward, blunt, brusque, entirely off-script. This is no act. He is no actor. And so we must, whether we like it or not, find our sense of security elsewhere when it comes to the non-conformist, President Trump.
The need for security is real. And the Office of the President of the United States indisputably has a role in fostering a sense of security for the nation. One place we might look to find such security is in the performance not of pretenders but the President’s policies.