It was last week, during the Democratic National Convention (a four-day-long montage of political messaging in support of former Vice President and Current Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s candidacy), that I began to take notice of the prosaic tone struck by the event and its speakers. Amidst a crumpled economy, an on-going public health pandemic that has taken the lives of 178,000 Americans, and a restrengthened conversation about racial justice and America’s racial history, there was a unifying message of hope.
The final night ended with a 21.78 million viewership across ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC — and averaged 20.12 million viewers across the six networks throughout all four nights. The events listed a few Republican speakers like the former governor of Ohio John Kasich and more liberal speakers like the Representative from New York’s 14th congressional district, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Not to mention speeches given from former President Barack Obama, former Democratic President Nominee Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and the running mates, Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris.
Though that messaging of hope and unity was laced with political language, I felt an unfamiliar comfort in the normalcy of politicians and other elected or unelected officials speaking in the form of communication that has been drowned out by the fringed rhetoric over the last decade of American politics.
During President Trump’s candidacy, this rhetoric was exhibited as a campaign strategy, though I don’t doubt President Trump’s belief in his messaging. Political Science professor John Sides produced a number of graphs detailing the correlation between Trump’s coverage versus his poll numbers in 2016. His blatant disregard for the methodical and precise weaponizing of language in which the political class has grown accustomed to, connected with the midwestern and independent voters who grew tired of the puzzling dialogue in which elected officials convey themselves to their constituents.
Some narrowed his salesman verbiage down to that of a populist ideology. However, that would be contradicted with his policies and their correlation with American poll numbers on specific issues. For example, in 2017 — despite pledging not to touch Medicaid on his campaign trail — Trump supported healthcare bills in Congress that would have dramatically cut the insurance program for lower-income Americans. Later that same month, a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found that 53% of voters objected to Medicaid reductions, with only 27% supporting the idea. Similarly, in July of 2017, a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll found that 58% of Americans disagreed with the President’s barring of Transgender people in the military.
In 2020, American’s have made their disapproval of the President public with the most recent approval ratings finding the President staggered with 54.7% of Americans disapproving and 41.6% approving of his performance as commander-in-chief — the lowest approval rating for a sitting President ramping towards re-election since H.W. Bush in 1993.
There’s a lot of reasons for this, but one of the analyses worth dissecting, I think, is President Trump’s lacking of political intellect. In many ways, Elected as a referendum on President Obama’s administration, Trump paints himself as antithetical. Long-time Republican strategist Frank Luntz described it as, “On the Republican side, they end up voting for the one guy who has no political experience whatsoever, because they hated Barack Obama so much that they wanted to vote for the antidote.” He goes on to paint the comparison between the two, “Obama’s smooth and Trump is rough. Obama’s calm, and Trump is hot. Obama is intellectual. Trump is emotional. You could not get someone more different than Barack Obama than Donald Trump.”
“On the Republican side, they end up voting for the one guy who has no political experience whatsoever, because they hated Barack Obama so much that they wanted to vote for the antidote.”
President Trump is often presented to the American public, either purposefully or unpurposefully, as a sensationalist or a figurehead of a rising right-wing ideology that welcomes conspiracy theories over scientific fact. It’s often his own doing, either tweeting something that signals an irrational or overtly-emotional candidate unfit for office, which then leads to his staff peddling to either clean up his mess politically or embrace the rougher edges of his worldview.
Perhaps this is why, within his presidency’s executive office, his administration has experienced a 91% turnover rate compared to the last five American presidencies, which never made it past 80%. As for turnover across all tiered positions in the administration, the most disruptions occurred in four specific offices: the Office of Communications, the Office of the Chief of Staff, the Press Office, and the National Security Council.
Trump’s Office of Communications has endured a great deal of turnover and extensive criticism, with those duties originally given to Sean Spicer. He also served, initially as the Press Secretary, where he lied about the President’s inauguration crowd within the first few weeks. Then came Mike Dubke as the next director for communications who held the position for about three months. His successor, Anthony Scaramucci, held the job for less than a week. Hope Hicks was initially made interim director, before officially accepting the role in September. In one year’s time, three or four leaders struggled amidst criticisms that the White House lacked a coherent message. With this many changes at the top made it undoubtedly challenging to create and maintain a high performing office.
The Press Office has been no different. Beginning with Spicer’s departure, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s promotion, then Lindsay Walters’s subsequent elevation to the deputy press secretary, followed by Stephanie Grisham’s tenure, and finally led to Kayleigh McEnany’s current occupation of the position. The National Security Council also floundered with the dismissal of its adviser (Michael Flynn), senior intelligence director (Ezra Cohen-Watnick), and senior director for Africa (Robin Townley) in the first two years.
“If you don’t want to be lied to, then you need to stop following politics.”
Some of this may be the result of behind-closed-door discussions and strategy. Still, most of it presents itself as a consequence for a President who often never considers the ramifications of his language in the coming hours, days, weeks, and even months after he shares his thoughts on an issue.
An example of this could be found in Trump’s announcement for candidacy back in 2015, where he would describe Mexican immigrants as “people who have lots of problems,” among other more accusatorial terms. Only to later amplify his rhetoric when attacking U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who presided over a pair of cases in which the plaintiffs alleged Trump University of duping them into paying tens of thousands of dollars on the belief they would be trained to learn Trump’s real estate strategies. When asked about the case in 2016 by the Wall Street Journal, Trump mentioned that Curiel had “an absolute conflict” in presiding over the litigation given that he is “of Mexican heritage.”
Fast forward to 2017, when President Trump began aggressively moving to restrict immigrants and build more robust border security, the language began to taint his efforts because of the racially charged rhetoric exhibited early on in his candidacy. While Obama — a President with a plushier knowledge of political mechanisms — mixed restrictions and benefits by deporting a record number of undocumented immigrants, totaling more than 5 million, but providing his administration political cover with the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program which prevented deportations for undocumented minors brought to the country by their parents.
This usage of policy may seem unempathetic or even as artificial. However, this strategy prevented Obama from being damaged in the polls or having his agenda weakened. Still, Steven Magee — a world-leading expert on radiation and human health — was once quoted as “If you do not want to be lied to, then you need to stop following politics.”
While there’s certainly validity in this — politicians long ago discovered a way to present policy in confined arguments that ignore outliers or don’t answer every question asked by the general public — President Trump’s willingness and sheer blatancy to ignore obvious truths reveals the differences between political norms and that of a President who promotes distrust.
There’s always been an underlying disavowment of political language and its malleable honesty. Still, perhaps the documented reign of President Trump has revealed the difference between the dialect of politics that, while not entirely truthful, is never fabricating truths and this new wave of oratory demagoguery and manipulation that has birthed a divided electorate. And while President Trump serves as evidence of the false righteousness of news media and career politicians, he also serves as a reflection of an electorate that often ignores policy for politics.
Not the legitimate dissertation of political action or language, but rather confirmation biases and superficial astonishment. One of the most important lessons to be learned from Donald Trump’s Presidency might be a better understanding of political commerce. What if we collectively understood, as a society, the difference between those who shout non-sense and those who don’t tell the entire truth. Perhaps then, we can keep our elected officials more accountable than we ever have before, knowing the difference between those who are meaning to do us harm and those who are merely trying to stay ahead of the curve.