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Donald J. Trump wants to be addressed as "Mister Trump" by his underlings. And those who consider themselves Trump loyalists are happy to oblige. When his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was asked about his strategy to “let Trump be Trump,” he said, yes, his strategy was: “Let Mr. Trump be Mr. Trump.” It didn’t sound as catchy when adding “Mister,” but he obviously didn’t want to seem disrespectful to the master.
Yet The Donald doesn’t think being “presidential” deserves such respect. He has mocked what being presidential supposedly means — play-acting “presidential” during speeches by walking like a stiff, talking like a phony, and coming across as boring. He tells audiences that they wouldn’t even attend his rallies if he acted presidential because he’d no longer be exciting and entertaining.
It is true that Trump stood out from the other 16 Republican presidential candidates by sounding more provocative and (in the view of his fans) “authentic.” So he’s not necessarily insulting the intelligence of his fans when he says they wouldn’t be drawn to him if he were more presidential.
But before Trump successfully turns the term “presidential” into a pejorative that is the equivalent of “typical politician,” let’s consider what the term once meant — and might mean again someday.
Trump is boastful. That is an understatement. If he’s not a narcissist, maybe that’s the word we should be redefining. In the pre-Trump era, it was thought that bragging about yourself — especially your wealth — was a sign of an immature, insecure person. And our past presidents at least feigned humility. Sure, their campaigns extolled their greatness — real or contrived. But the great presidents reminded us that their role was to “preside” as humble public servants, not — and this is a word Trump has actually used in talking about U.S. presidents -- “reign.”
Another trait that defined “presidential” was a leader’s ability to express a compelling vision and/or strategy for a better future — to inspire, not to incite and frighten. Trump just gave a speech that was supposedly his foreign policy vision. He read a prepared text and used a Teleprompter (despite his earlier saying it should be illegal for presidential candidates to use them) but it was typically rambling, shallow and contradictory.
Trump fans love how he is polarizing. They relish his insults. But the presidents most consistently praised as “presidential” were those who made Americans feel like they were part of a United States. As Abraham Lincoln put it, they appealed to the better angels of our nature.
If “presidential” has become an old-fashioned word to be ridiculed in the Age of Entertainment, then “honor” should bite the dust too. Trump has shown himself to be a bully in many ways. His attacks on women — like Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, and Heidi Cruz -- show he has little or no sense of shame. And his refusal to apologize even when he knows he’s guilty of stupidity — like mocking a journalist with a disability and mocking POWs -- shows he has no sense of dignity.
“Presidential” once evoked pride in Americans. It brought to mind virtues like honor, integrity and thoughtfulness. Is that all just ancient history now?
Teddy Roosevelt and other presidents used the office as a “bully pulpit” — to win public support through reason and respect. Will that power soon be used to bully Americans who don’t support a president’s "reign"?
If Mr. Trump becomes Mr. President, will he redefine “presidential” to mean “the Trump brand?” If so, many Americans will think back on this entertaining contest and realize that the entertainment came at a very high price.
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst and regular contributor to WBUR Politicker. He tweets @ToddDomke.
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