In television, everything is appearances.
This is ancient knowledge, something publicists have been wielding since the earliest days of the silver screen. You can use forced perspective to make a miniature appear larger. You build moments from hours of footage and dozens of distinct shots. You lower the lights or raise them. You add dramatic music. It’s a festival of performance and artifice, and that’s something Donald Trump has always done very well. He’s a master of appearances, maximizing his influence by maximizing the number of eyes on him. He rode this wave of attention from the set of The Apprentice to the West Wing.
He has, however, proven less adept at translating this style into an effective presidency, with few examples as pertinent as his faceplanting response to Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Houston. Once regarded as an expert in image manipulation, we’re increasingly learning his brash, caution-to-the-wind style is much more the result of thoughtlessness than any defined strategy.
Much like with regard to Charlottesville, he’s had to redo his response from square one after botching it the first time, attempting to stem the bleeding caused by his self-congratulatory first visit to storm-devastated parts of the region. The Atlantic calls it an “empathy deficit,” and while that is certainly true, it’s actually a much bigger problem than that: the president understands television, but doesn’t understand the presidency. Or at least the power and imagery of it.
I’ve talked at length about Trump’s inability to contain bad press and how markedly it contrasts with his pre-inauguration deftness at deflecting it. Both that phenomenon and what I’m discussing in this article come from the same place: he doesn’t seem to really grasp the situation he’s in, how the way people are looking at him has changed. A man long used to playing by his own rules has stepped into a 228-year-old institution with as many years of tradition and public expectation behind it, and is less chafing under the constraints of it than failing to notice them at all, and then getting angry when people point them out.
As usual, this amounts to a failure at managing his public image, and consequently, a failure at PR. Whatever the president’s personal vices or virtues may be, he will not be able to effectively govern without learning first that a campaign is not an administration, and second, that the expectations facing him, the expectations he has willingly taken upon himself, are not going to go away.
At moments of national catastrophe or crisis, the role of the president becomes something like a “consoler-in-chief,” which, while not strictly prescribed in the Constitution, has evolved over time as the president became, in essence, the nation’s ambassador to itself. After the Challenger disaster, Reagan offered the country moving words and comfort. Clinton rose to the challenge after Oklahoma City. George W. Bush worked to assuage the fears and worries of a nation reeling from the worst terror attack it has ever faced.
Trump, on the other hand, showed up far from the damage, spoke a few ill-timed words about how great he and his team are, and after a very short pro forma briefing for the sake of the camera, simply left. No words of comfort. No mention of the victims. No call to unity, charity, or even calm; Pence had to fill that gap. There was much self-patting on the back for what has certainly been an orderly, well-executed recovery effort – but this is one of those times when the optics are almost as important as the concrete actions on the ground, something one would have expected the president to grasp instinctively. But, as in Charlottesville, it is clear that he lacks the capability to do better than “well, at least he didn’t say something terrible.”
And that is a very, very low bar.
Trump’s bravado, his willingness to buck convention, is what delivered him the nomination. A populace frustrated with the same old politicians sent him to Washington. Key to that success was his genuine, non-focused-grouped, off-the-cuff style, but Trump doesn’t seem to have fully grasped that his audience is much larger than his base. Either that, or he simply doesn’t care; after all, his style worked, right? But in Houston, whatever he was trying to accomplish, that same style made him look callous and self-interested in the wake of one of this country’s largest natural disasters. It’s clear he thought he was being presidential, in his branded, trademarked baseball hat. It’s clear he thought that this would communicate – well, something, anyway. That he was dedicated and competent. But instead, he came off as missing the point; such as he did speak to the situation rather than his handling of it, he struck a feel-good inspirational tone that felt nothing if not out of place.
Let’s remember another president and another hurricane.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, almost wiping New Orleans off the map – a blow it took a solid decade to recover from. If ever you want an example of bad optics bringing a president down, here it is; a simple photo of Bush reviewing the damage from the air instead of personally visiting, coupled with prematurely congratulatory remarks for FEMA director Michael Brown, cast the administration in a decidedly unfavorable light: disconnected, unaware of the situation on the ground, a poor judge of progress. Bush had won re-election less than a year before – and his presidency crumbled from Katrina onward. He would never manage to recover public confidence and goodwill. From then on, it was simply a country waiting for him to fail.
This is not to say that Harvey will be Trump’s Katrina as much as it is to illustrate that some of the old pieties and expectations still hold. Trump can’t simply disregard them; whether he likes it or not, he is the president of the entire country, and not solely the thirty percent of the Republican Party that constitutes his diehard base. A president who can’t get the country behind him can’t govern, and these little symbolic displays of leadership, these moments of real human contact and connection, tell people the president actually gives a hoot about what happens to them, is saddened by tragedy instead of seeing it merely as the opportunity to score points. It goes a long way to building bridges.
That’s a lesson Trump had best learn quickly.