The stricken punditocracy agrees that Donald Trump is missing a crucial quality, a je ne sais quoi necessary for his office. He may be president, but he is not presidential. The liberal world is in mourning for this dispositional quiddity, presidentialness.
According to one recent poll, 70 per cent of Americans surveyed held that Trump has – particularly in his genuinely startling use of social media, his deliberately offensive provocations – acted ‘unpresidentially’. Plucking examples from vast reserves, the LA Times decries Trump’s ‘self-indulgent and unpresidential demeanor’; the Village Voice his ‘unpresidential’ ‘antics’; the Atlantic ‘the unpresidential things Trump says’. And the angst is global. The Irish Times lists ‘[a]ll the unpresidential things Trump has done since he got elected’; according to The Guardian, asserting a taken-for-granted antipode, Trump is ‘tyrannical not presidential’; indeed for the Toronto Star, ‘Donald Trump defines the meaning of “unpresidential”’.
It’s common on the Left to point out what has apparently not counted as unpresidential: slave-owning; massacre; imperial butchery. What is there for which to hanker?
But presidentialness is a floating signifier, as tenacious as it is vacuous. To appeal to it is less to invoke than, fleetingly, to construct something – especially in the negative, as an attack. It is a speech act. Barack Obama was unpresidential, those who despised him said, in various ways. So, according to their critics, were Hillary Clinton’s 2008 speeches, and McCain’s; Howard Dean’s 2004 yell; Bill Clinton entertaining the question, ‘Boxers or briefs?’; Ross Perot for his demeanour; Gary Hart for his affair; Carter – not just ‘unpresidential’ but ‘mean’, said NBC – for attacking Reagan as divisive, and so, lengthily, on. There are local variants, such as former Labour front- bencher Charles Clarke’s recent articulation of the rote charge that Jeremy Corbyn is ‘not prime ministerial’, but none have the traction or freightedness of the US formulation. Unpresidentialness today, in particular, is a cause for unprecedented national and international mourning, and has never been so ubiquitous a concern.
That there are terrible specificities to Trumpism, that it is and he is unstable, remarkable and dangerous, is not in debate. What’s telling, though, is how often it is asserted that it is Trump’s unpresidential style that ushers in apocalypse. ‘The spectacle’, writes professor of rhetoric Robert Ivie, ‘of presidential incivility – the bull in the china shop – raises the question of whether a fragile US political culture was broken beyond repair.’
The implied obverse, an unbroken culture, would be a more civil form of class and imperial rule.
US liberals are envious, casting longing glances across the Atlantic at, say, France’s telegenic new neoliberal Dauphin Macron. Neera Tanden and Matt Browne squee in the Washington Post that he ‘provides lessons for all Americans, but particularly progressives’. Macron’s ‘landslide’ was of course predicated on mass abstentionism and unenthusiastic nose-holding against Marine Le Pen. But even for those in the alt-centre for whom that, like his recent unreconstructedly racist comments on ‘African families’, is feature rather than bug, Macron is haemorrhaging support at a degree unprecedented in generations. He is, by now, currently less popular than Trump.
In an era of centrist decline, reality remains recalcitrant to the melancholy post-Trump dreamworlds, because it is something to which the dreams must be compared. As the title of a vinegary riposte to Tanden and Browne by Daniel José Camacho puts it, ’Democrats, get a grip: Emmanuel Macron is not your progressive savior’.
As his limitations become clearer, yearning liberal gazes now turn or return to Angela Merkel, whom Joan Walsh on MSNBC declares ‘the leader of the free world’ – a weak-tea sass echoed by the Guardian, the Independent, Macleans, The Australian, The Irish Times, the Financial Times, the New York Times, and across the centrosphere.
The persuasive insistence that Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump is an expression of anger at the centrists from the left: by contrast, the proliferation of ‘What If Hillary Had Won?’ think- pieces expresses a furious liberal misery about this eventuality, the lost political utinam, this might-have-been of history – for ‘Earth 2’, in the comic-book formulation borrowed by fivethirtyeight.com’s Nate Silver. For this defining emotion of the Democratic self-styled ‘resistance’ we can borrow the Slovenian word hrepenenje: an intense, quasi-nostalgic yearning for that which has not happened.
‘I would take that outcome every day of the week and twice on Sundays’, says Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post. Such pieces often allow that things would by no means be perfect – indeed, says Jill Filipovic in the wistful, ‘Imagine if Hillary Clinton Were President Today’ in Cosmopolitan, ‘a Clinton presidency often would have been excruciating’. ‘And yet’, she grieves, in what could be the slogan for this approach, ‘it would be so, so much better’.
There are, of course, countless very, very good reasons for despising and fighting Trump’s vicious hard-right reign. But the counterfactual longing for rule by a brutal neoliberal hawk is by some way the worst of them.
‘[T]he state of hrepenenja is dangerous’, warns one article about the linguistics of longing, on the europhile culture website cafebabel.com, ‘as it is linked to the necessity of staying out of touch with reality and remaining in the undefined, fantasy sphere.’ Indeed.
The strength of more straightforward liberal nostalgia is manifest starkly in the emerging Obama-cult. The culture industry’s hagiography (Barry, Southside with You) is accompanied by a torrent of schmaltzy and lachrymose words – what Perry Anderson, quoting examples, calls a ‘bouquet of O-schlock’. Reading the Guardian’s December 2016 collected effusions on ’Obama’s legacy’ provokes a don’t-know-where-to-look embarrassment, like reading the diaries of besotted teenagers. ‘What more do you want’ (Edmund White) than Obama’s ‘all-encompassing, abiding, and amazing grace’ (Candace Allen), ‘moderation, reason and respect’ (Garth Greenwell), ‘suave deportment … articulacy … charm … grace’ (Lionel Shriver)? He is a ‘deeply reflective man … who loves books and ideas, creativity and inventiveness’ (Marilynne Robinson), who is ‘elegant, well-spoken, funny … morally upright, preternaturally calm’ (Siri Hustvedt), a ‘[b]rilliant and understated, urbane, witty, compassionate, composed … unique human being’ (Joyce Carol Oates). And so on.
One almost weeps with gratitude for Gary Younge’s brief, thoughtful, measured take – that while certainly better than the alternative, ’[j]udged by what was necessary, Obama was inadequate’, that ‘he couldn’t have done everything. But he could have done more’. But what’s striking about the tide against which Younge swims is that far from disavowing certain imperial realities, this enthusiasm often comes despite it.
It ‘is not to say that it’s been a perfect time’, as Allen puts it. Again, criticisms of the object of longing are conceded, even more readily than they are in Clintonian hrepenenja. ‘He may not have done everything right’, says Robinson. Hustvedt ‘did not agree with all of President Obama’s policies’.
I was mortified by ongoing drone attacks and upset by his administration’s surprising secrecy. I had hoped for national healthcare, not insurance exchanges. Obama has been criticised harshly by some in the black community for not speaking out enough about racism in its many insidious institutional forms.
Still. She holds it most likely that ‘Obama will stand for a politics of human dignity’.
Put to one side the repeated unconvincing insistence that it was Obama’s opponents who were ultimately responsible for his ‘limitations’. Whether or not his admirers insist on this, and not all do, it is precisely in part by acknowledging his continuities with (even accelerations of ) imperial, neoliberal action that the ultimate encomia for the President are strengthened.
Such preemptive concession to a counterargument is a rhetorical device known as Paramologia. According to Peacham’s 1577 Garden of Eloquence, this is ‘when we graunt many things to our aduersaryes, and at the last bringe in one thinge that ouerthroweth all that were graunted before’.
Which, of course, is how presidentialness works. It is such a one thinge.
Making a joke of his initial commitment to ‘open government’, Obama perpetrated what has, even in the liberal press, been widely called ‘a war on whistleblowers’. His drone program, involving ten times more strikes than under George W Bush, killed as many as 801 civilians, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with some estimates higher still (the administration’s own figures of between sixty-four and 116 civilian deaths are widely discredited), and left children, as per the 2013 testimony of thirteen-year-old Zubair Rehman, afraid of clear skies. Still Obama is (per Cynthia Bond) ‘a blazing tribute to what has been’. Because what is key to approval is the demeanour, the politesse with which one performs politics, rather than what one actually does. ‘We’re now receiving a lesson in how substantial style is’, says Garth Greenwell. He eulogises Obama’s ’genuinely presidential demeanour’, his adding of ‘extraordinary personal dignity to the dignity of the office’. Eight of the Guardian contributors mention ‘dignity’ and five ‘style’ (repeated references to which, along with ‘grace’, are tells of a racialising liberal imaginary.) It is style, says Shriver, that she will miss most of all.
Related to what Daniel Lazare describes as the ‘religious aura’ surrounding the US Constitution has been a faith in the transformative power of the US’s US-ness – that there is, as Bill Clinton repeatedly put it, ‘nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what’s right with America’ – and of its institutions. In the first traumatised moments of the Trump ascendency, Obama expressed such a hope. ‘[R]eality’, he said, ‘has a way of asserting itself’ to the likes of Trump, because ’[t]his office has a way of waking you up’. But the riposte to such fairy-tale thinking is there in the online memes of the alt-right. The infighting in the administration in part represents a battle between the realpolitik of state institutions and the disruptive utopianism of hard Trumpism. But whichever has the upper hand at any moment, Trump is still Pepe, a frog who remains a frog, resolutely unchangeable into any prince, this unlikely kiss of history notwithstanding.
In his bracing essay ’The Age of Detesting Trump’, David Bromwich diagnoses the extraordinary, overdetermined, decreasingly tethered centre-left media loathing for the new president – ‘monster and scapegoat’ – the ‘compulsion to convict Trump of something definite, something dire’. There is an investment in this national(ist) testeria. The ‘resistance’ enjoys its symptoms.
Including sheer abjection. One result of the failure of the magical office to cure Trump, as Obama hoped, has, including on the dissenting conservative right, gone beyond horror. ‘He is shameful’, says Republican strategist Ana Navarro. For the political website The Hill, too, Trump isn’t just ‘outrageous’ but ‘shameful’. The sentiment repeatedly recurs. ‘I am’, says Congressman Seth Moulton ‘ashamed that he is our president’. In recent polls, 58 per cent of those polled and a huge majority of Democrats said that Trump made them embarrassed.
And yet there are moments when liberals can find their pride – and their president – again. Notoriously, and to the healthy scorn of the online left and better liberalism, it was Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress and eulogy to a Navy SEAL killed in a covert operation in Yemen that the former special advisor in the Obama administration Van Jones announced to be ‘one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period’. He declared it a moment of happiness for those ‘hoping that he [Trump] might find some way to become presidential’ – the moment, indeed, when Trump ‘became president of the United States’.
Trump’s bombing of Syria in April 2017 occasioned even more fawning: in a moment of journalistic credulousness so cringeworthy it was swiftly thought better of and altered, the New York Times headline described how ‘On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First’. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria enthused that with this attack, ’Donald Trump became president of the United States’. Four months later (after the supposed political ‘tipping point’ of widespread outrage at Trump’s response to the fascist rampage in Charlottesville) he announced a ramping up of war in Afghanistan, and was immediately heralded on Twitter by Philip Rucker, the Washington bureau chief at the Washington Post, as ‘a new President Trump … talking about gravity of office, history and substance’. In Foreign Affairs, the right- liberal foreign-policy analyst Paul D. Miller published, ‘Trump’s Presidential Afghanistan Speech’, praising ‘one of Donald Trump’s finest moments as president’.
For the muscular liberal, it is in particular through moralised imperial violence that national dignity is momentarily regained. But as much as it appears triumphalist, such liberal imperialism is fretful and pre-nostalgic, as the US’s relative power declines. (One need look no further than the multiplex to discern anxieties over declining US empire, whether in the return to past wars, once more with feeling (Kong: Skull Island); dreams of superliberals to fight for historic or modern decency (Wonder Woman, the Captain America movies); or fretting in melancholy fashion about the rise of China (Arrival).)
The liberal imprimatur, the recognition and hence bestowal of presidentialness on Trump in reward for decisive violence is the flipside of all that angst that he, unpresidential demeanour and all, is ‘weakening’ the US. It comes from Kofi Annan, James Clapper (the former director of National Intelligence), and, in the words of the LA Times, ‘numerous current and former diplomats’. In that rather-too-eager laying of individual blame for a historic decline that predated Trump and will continue after him, is an acknowledgement that it is at base this increasing ‘weakness’ itself that is a key source of liberal misery, of embarrassment, of shame. ‘America is already great’, Obama, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic leadership insisted against Trump, fooling few, protesting rather too much. Trump performs a role in deflecting such historic angst, providing a temporary scapegoat.
Subjectively it is a doomed aspiration to make America great again: objectively, Trumpism is an excr/essence of the crisis of a centrism in denial about hegemonic decline. Not so much the cunning of history as its outsider art.
Trump’s own relationship to presidentialness is remarkable, if of a piece with his breaches of accepted codes. In April 2016, as front- runner for the candidacy, he told supporters that though he wasn’t ready yet, ‘[a]t some point I’m going to be so presidential that you people will be so bored’. In a few virtuoso words, Trump thus acknowledged his own unpresidentialness but derided traditional fixation on style by undercutting any sense of that style’s hallowed sacredness or difficulty.
‘I’ll come back’, he continued, ‘as a presidential person and instead of 10,000 people I’ll have about 150 people and they’ll say, “But boy, he really looks presidential”’. ‘Presidential’ behaviour is, as he implied, boring. And if it has become so boring that it is now as much a liability as an asset, that is not contingent. As recent seismic political shocks attest, the centre is collapsing, and those traditional norms of presidentialness are epiphenomena of that current. But epiphenomena can have cultural traction – as can discontent with them. Insisting that he could be, and thus was then not, boring, Trump counterposed dynamism to sclerosis. This struck chords because, the snake oil, smoke, mirrors and sadisms of his solutions notwithstanding, business as usual was indeed collapsing even in its own terms.
Technocratic centrism may not scintillate, its partisans have long insisted, but it works: for it to be both boring and failing is a major crisis. It is in this context that the spectacle itself becomes part of a political wager: for alarming numbers, in all his unpresidential Ubu Roi monstrousness, Trump’s not-dullness had more than merely entertainment value.
More than a year after that promise, in July 2017, Trump countertrolled liberals. ‘My use of social media is not Presidential’, he tweeted, ‘it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.’ Thus he shifted his agenda from an insistence that he could and would be presidential, to an assertion that he now is, without passing through any change. Rather, that presidentialness itself was forced to alter.
Liberals are not the only ones with recourse to speech acts. Not only is Trump an adept, but he performs them now from his new position: it is the president himself who is insisting that his acts are presidential.
Presidentialness, of course, will continue to float even more than most signifiers. Indeed, with the crisis of their project in a destablising world, liberals’ obsession with norms of appearance, trappings and proprieties of a collapsing system, may grow, in glum aspirational metonymy: it was during feudalism’s decline that chivalry and jousting were ‘reaching their highest pitch’, as the historian A.L. Morton puts it. This, in Morton’s further words, is the mechanism we see now: ‘a fantastic if superficial refinement of manners, an elaborate mask … hiding the reality of decay’.
In the default liberal version of that ineffable, ahistoric category ’leadership’, whatever else, the presidential president has one key ability: according to the classic definition of Richard Neustadt, ’[p]residential power is the power to persuade’. Through persuasion (though Neustadt would not put it this way) the great president might effect elite rule without breaching democratic norms. This of course is ideology more than theory, and it is as such that, despite its speciousness (which its critics, including in the mainstream, point out), it continues to proliferate.
It has found particular expression with regard to Obama, in books like The Making of Barack Obama: The Politics of Persuasion, clickbait headlines about how ‘Team Obama Mastered the Science of Mass Persuasion – And Won’. There were even utopian visions of how presidential persuasiveness might save the very system that sets such store by it. ‘Frustrated by the inability of Congress and the White House to reach agreement on much of anything,’ the Associated Press reported, ‘the president is increasingly relying on his powers of persuasion to cajole people and organizations to help tackle some of the country’s big problems – voluntarily’.
Today, naked avowal of Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ – or, especially given #itsherturn Clintonism, the ‘Great Person’ – theory of history, hero-worship as philosophy, would appear rather too unreconstructed and unseemly. But the presidentialness paradigm is a polite modern iteration – for which ‘persuasiveness’ operates as a vital legitimating mediator between mass and elite.
And that model’s shading into the original undiluted formula is called to mind in Carlyle’s own critique of his own critics. ‘[I]n no time whatever can they entirely eradicate out of living men’s hearts a certain altogether peculiar reverence for Great Men; genuine admiration, loyalty, adoration … Hero-worship endures forever while man endures.’ To that, to the tenacity of such peculiar reverence, the contributions to the Guardian eloquently attest.
For this ideology, in the failure of presidentialness, it is persuasion itself that has broken down (a repeated recent fret – ’President Obama Finds Limits of Powers of Persuasion’, warned ABC News). And while the president doesn’t escape censure for such a loss, still less do those on the other end of the ‘persuasion’ model – the demos. Here, the worst dereliction is that of those at the bottom, who won’t know their limits or place (as in the notorious New Yorker cartoon of an angry passenger calling for the takeover of the plane from smug elitist pilots). They scandalously refuse to play their allotted role – obedience, being persuadable, and persuaded. ‘[T]he response of several liberal commentators’ to Hillary Clinton’s defeat, as Abi Wilkinson succinctly puts it in Jacobin, ‘was to suggest that the public had let her down’. ’Unfortunately,’ writes Jack Moore in GQ on Hillary’s defeat, in perfect illustration, ‘it turned out we didn’t deserve her.’ (That is true, if not in the way that he means.)
When reality fails the model, the electorate refusing to do what they are told, the result is an epistemological crisis which throws up various and variously wild speculations. The Russians are said to have ‘hacked’ the election, and there is a useful elision in the verb between meaning literal IT interventions (such as the leak of John Podesta’s emails that so outraged Clinton’s supporters because it disclosed certain truths about their candidate, plausibly-enough blamed on hackers with Russian backing), and in a more vague and very urgent sense of tweaking any system towards a desired outcome in some way or other. On the latter, leaving aside the obvious hypocrisy of the outrage (given the US’s long and vigorous history of interference in foreign elections, from Italy in 1948 through the 1970s, Japan in 1951, Germany 1953, via the Philipines, Vietnam, Laos, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Chile in 1964, and on and on – eighty-one times between 1946 and 2000, not counting coups, according to an estimate by political scientist Dov Levin), the paranoid nebulousness of the latter, broader allegation is striking.
The Republican strategist John Brabender allows that Russia attempted to interfere with the election but stresses that, absent evidence of successfully attacking voting machines and thus presenting a false tally of the outcome of votes, which is not alleged, ‘[t]he truth is that no one has given a credible explanation of what the Russians actually did, or even could do, to change or affect the outcome’. That is, he jokes, ‘[w]ith mass hypnosis ruled out’.
But it is not, in fact, firmly ruled out.
One of the most remarkable recent expositions of the epistemological floundering, of that non-ruling-out, a fear of literal plebian mind- control, is not American but British (which should be a rebuke to any Old-World smugness about the paranoid style in American politics). Nor does it focus on the Trump campaign, but on the question of Brexit. Its suspicious glare, however, is trained directly on an organisation with intimate links to Donald Trump, his hard- right supporters, and his presidential campaign.
In June 2017, BBC Newsnight asked whether ‘in the age of big data, our democracy is open to manipulation’. Much of its 13-minute report was an intriguing untangling of connections around the transatlantic analysis and strategy company Cambridge Analytica (CA), part-owned by the hard-right hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer, a Trump supporter. CA had connections with the pro-Brexit campaign, with (like Mercer) Ted Cruz’s run to be the GOP candiate, and it later worked on Trump’s presidential campaign (to which Mercer, too, switched his support). CA’s techniques of targeted social-media messaging come in for particular, not-uninteresting scrutiny.
But bookending the report were stretches of astonishing antique footage of spectacular displays of mesmerism, transforming people into will-less puppets, of a poster demanding, ‘Hypnotism: Menace or Myth?’
Discussing CA’s signature technique of ‘psychographics’, one contributor warned urgently that the company was ‘using psychological techniques to change people’s thoughts and behaviour’. Of course, this could be read as a thoroughly banal description of everyday PR – or as crude apocalyptic warning of nefarious, Manchurian Candidate– or They Live-style total manipulation.
Certainly, there is no ‘free’ choice under capitalism, no preference not complexly shaped. The intricacies of agency, of choice and its constraints under neoliberalism and its ideologies demand nuanced analysis. That, visions of mind-control rays, of putting the ’fluence on the masses, ‘chang[ing] people’s thoughs’, are not.
’For some opponents of Brexit, the idea that the EU referendum was hijacked by alt-right hypnotists wielding high-tech psychological weaponry looks, perhaps, like a reasonable explanation,’ the report startlingly concludes, stretching the definition of ‘reasonable’ by some way. Almost ruefully the piece closes: ’But the known facts don’t, quite, support this theory.’
This is dutiful callback to the fact that the techniques were of ‘no strategic value at all’, as one Cruz aide complains. ’[I]n the end it was just bullshit’. ‘Perhaps’, Newsnight goes on, ‘this is simply a case of theatrics and overzealous PR. Perhaps. But it remains a story of contradictions and unanswered questions.’ In that open end and the careful ‘perhaps’, there is palpable yearning for the ‘reasonable’ explanation that journalistic due diligence discounts.
It should go without saying that for any liberatory project, psephological realities need rigorous investigation, into granular details of why recent votes went the ways they did, and how, and into concomitant and dynamic parameters of ideology and potentiality. In its place, in this crisis of elite entitlement, are these fantasies that don’t explain such details but explain them away, consoling even as they terrify, making sense of a world that won’t comply with broken models. Journalists, for whom denigration of the ‘conspiracy theory’ is usually de rigeur, now advert to antidemocratic suspicions that even if votes were cast as counted, they are illegitimate; that voters’ minds, unlike their furious critics’, were not their own.
If the failure of presidentialness is less the failure of the inaugurated persuader-in-chief to persuade than of the unpersuaded to be persuadable, presidentialness’s partisans can only pine to dissolve the people and elect another.
The problem with the presidentialness-worship of ‘the resistance’ is not merely that it is sententious buffoonery of, for a politics so invested in ‘dignity’, a remarkably undignified kind. Nor is it that, given the Trump base and the political make-up and strategy of the Republican Party, whatever else might, the ‘ill-mannered’ nature of Trump’s rule is unlikely to be what hurts him; that while for some ‘there is time to fret about how an office gets demeaned’, as Ross Barkan puts it in the Guardian, ‘a lot of people just don’t care, and have no good reason to’. It is that this hankering is key to this antidemocratic program and drive.
Recent political upsets have led to an increasing number of liberal think pieces questioning, warning of or complaining about, to quote the LA Times, ‘the perils of too much democracy’. ‘Yes,’ the Washington Post concludes, ‘there is such a thing as too much democracy’. (See also USA Today, the Brookings Institute and the Financial Times, among many others.) Still, unlike ‘epistocratic’ libertarianism or the cranks of Neoreaction, state liberalism is generally pleased to deploy the term ‘democracy’ to describe its own preferred system. This is one in which a suitably worshippable and presidential president presides over democracy’s hollowing out.
This article was first published in Salvage #5: Contractions, in October 2017.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.