On Acting Presidential and Other Security Blankets

 

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 [2013] 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.

Published in Politics
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There are 11 comments.

  1. Thatcher

    Excellent analysis. Thank you.

     

    • #1
    • September 13, 2018 at 2:06 am
    • 3 likes
  2. Member

    Nice slam of the Trump haters, but I think even some of his supporters think his behavior is bizarre and unpleasant. I think the only security worries are that he has the instruments of state power at his command if he chooses to use them (Military. IRS. FBI. Justice Department. EPA. etc. ). Personally, I think the Democrats did weaponize the instruments of state power, and Trump seems unlikely to. However, some of his bizarre & belligerent tweets and comments could give a temperate person a feeling of insecurity, given the power he could wield. The insecurity is not unreasonable or evidence of weakness or character flaws.

    • #2
    • September 13, 2018 at 3:03 am
    • 2 likes
  3. Member

    JohnJBombaro: Trump is straightforward, blunt, brusque, entirely off-script. This is no act. He is no actor.

    Of course he’s an actor. Which campaign did you watch? He hosted a TV show. He has been a media personality his whole life. He has been a CEO for decades. Even a child knows how to put on a good face. 

    Sometimes Trump is brutally honest and sometimes he is putting on a show. Isn’t it the claim of many Trump fans that his Twitter tirades are often strategic? 

    All this psycho-babble just refers to charisma, which people have been drawn to in leaders since the dawn of humanity. TV and internet dramatically increased its influence in political campaigns. 

    • #3
    • September 13, 2018 at 4:57 am
    • 7 likes
  4. Thatcher

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    JohnJBombaro: Trump is straightforward, blunt, brusque, entirely off-script. This is no act. He is no actor.

    Of course he’s an actor. Which campaign did you watch? He hosted a TV show. He has been a media personality his whole life. He has been a CEO for decades. Even a child knows how to put on a good face.

    Sometimes Trump is brutally honest and sometimes he is putting on a show. Isn’t it the claim of many Trump fans that his Twitter tirades are often strategic?

    All this psycho-babble just refers to charisma, which people have been drawn to in leaders since the dawn of humanity. TV and internet dramatically increased its influence in political campaigns.

    Aaron, great points. I agree that the Trump Persona is an Act. All of us have public personas that are acts. The folks in politics are amplified. Reagan had an act. 

    A public persona is not a lie, or inauthentic. It is that person’s mode in public. I think Trump, like others in politics or business, puts on his “game face” for public. He just has chosen not to change personas from the one he has used all his adult life for one that fits the “presidential” mode. 

     

    • #4
    • September 13, 2018 at 5:51 am
    • 5 likes
  5. Admin

    Good post. However, I do not concede that Trump does not act presidential. He does when it’s appropriate. For instance, at the 9/11 service on Tuesday. Or when he’s meeting foreign leaders at the White House, etc. He is perfectly capable of being (and is) sincerelypresidential when he should be. He is not, in my opinion, fakepresidential (in the sense that John laid out in the post) when he doesn’t need to be.

    Not sure if that makes sense to anyone else, but it makes sense to me.

    I do understand that some people, the Left and NeverTrumpers mostly, are confused and frightened by Trump’s refusal to fake play-act.

    • #5
    • September 13, 2018 at 8:11 am
    • 10 likes
  6. Thatcher

    Max Ledoux (View Comment):

    Good post. However, I do not concede that Trump does not act presidential. He does when it’s appropriate. For instance, at the 9/11 service on Tuesday. Or when he’s meeting foreign leaders at the White House, etc. He is perfectly capable of being (and is) sincerelypresidential when he should be. He is not, in my opinion, fakepresidential (in the sense that John laid out in the post) when he doesn’t need to be.

    Not sure if that makes sense to anyone else, but it makes sense to me.

    I do understand that some people, the Left and NeverTrumpers mostly, are confused and frightened by Trump’s refusal to fake play-act.

    Good points, Max.

    • #6
    • September 13, 2018 at 10:44 am
    • 3 likes
  7. Thatcher

    JohnJBombaro: 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.

    John,

    I think this is a much greater factor with the left than we have ever realized. They are looking for emotional security that would have been provided by a large family or religious observance in years past. I have a name for this which is much less attractive than “Security Theater”. I call this “Adult Bedtime Stories”. I know this sounds a little rough but in the face of the left clinging to policies that don’t work either individually or collectively over time, there is no other explanation. We have watched the two-parent family being eroded for the last 50 years. Nothing could be more clearly a threat to the average person’s health and happiness. Yet, a large part of the electorate would rather be told about ever-evolving “relationships” connected with the freedom to end these relationships as well as the pregnancies that result.

    The present political course under Trump is the first hope this society has seen for ordinary people to put together an ordinary life in a very long time. However, the hysterical adult children are hysterical because they aren’t getting their adult bedtime stories with their extra-special favorite politician tucking them in. That Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Cory Booker, or Kamala Harris have absolutely nothing to offer ordinary people and if given any power would further damage the interests of ordinary people may or may not be recognized. We will find out in the mid-terms. Either people are ready for real solutions or they want to drift off to sleep sucking their collective thumb.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #7
    • September 13, 2018 at 1:54 pm
    • 6 likes
  8. Coolidge
    JohnJBombaro Post author

    Several good points here. I’m pleased the muse has stimulated some conversation. 

    First, I cede to Aaron and Bryan – of course there’s theatre involved and of course Trump is an actor (I mean, he was THAT guy on Apprentice). There’s a sense in which we are All acting. E.g., “act your age.” But, second, I’m going to stand my point about him putting in the “presidential act” to perpetuate the false sense of security garnered by ACTING presidential. 

    • #8
    • September 13, 2018 at 3:02 pm
    • 1 like
  9. Coolidge
    JohnJBombaro Post author

    Thanks, Jim. I love the “ adult bedtime stories“ comment. 

    • #9
    • September 13, 2018 at 3:09 pm
    • 2 likes
  10. Member

    There was a comment I read “out there on the internet” recently that expressed delight that the “age of Trump” is marked by directness and bluntness, instead of the usual political theater and fakery.

    To be sure, there’s still a lot of theater, but we’re far more aware that it’s theater. With President Trump what you see is what you get. You might not like it, but you can trust it’s authentic. In response, his opponents in the media and on the Democrat side of the aisle (and to an extent his opponents in the GOP) have dropped all pretense of fairness. In response to his bluntness they’re being blunt as well. Everything and everyone is being exposed for what they are.

    And this, I think, is sort of a good thing.

    • #10
    • September 13, 2018 at 3:59 pm
    • 3 likes
  11. Admin

    JohnJBombaro (View Comment):
    There’s a sense in which we are All acting. E.g., “act your age.”

    I do not concede that I act my age. 🤪

    • #11
    • September 18, 2018 at 7:51 am
    • Like