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A new working paper might explain why teleprompter Trump comes off as “presidential”

Researchers explore the power of public rituals.

President Trump Addresses The Nation In His First State Of The Union Address To Joint Session Of  Congress Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

President Donald Trump didn’t actually get the historic ratings he bragged about at his first State of the Union speech, but among the people who watched it, he got a warm reception — 75 percent of viewers approved of the speech, according to a CBS News poll. Supporters largely celebrated, some detractors recoiled at his rhetoric, and plenty of pundits kind of shrugged: Trump hit on some big themes, had some high points, and made it through his speech without screwing up. He pulled off the “presidential” thing.

This idea, that after these big speeches like the State of the Union or last year’s address to Congress, Trump finally turns into America’s conception of what a president should be has become something of a running joke — especially when he blows up the goodwill a few days later on Twitter.

But a new working paper might help explain exactly why Americans buy into the belief of a “presidential” Trump after traditions such as State of the Union. It’s not merely that Trump reads off a teleprompter or doesn’t veer off script. It’s that plopping him in the middle of these public rituals — ones with all the familiar trappings and symbolism of the American presidency — helps transform Trump into a commander-in-chief viewers recognize. Even if it’s just for a day.

What the study found

Researchers found that Americans who were randomly encouraged to watch Trump’s inaugural address and his first speech to Congress in February last year were more likely to describe Trump as more “presidential” in the aftermath of those events.

The study authors recruited participants through an online survey that offered a small financial incentive. The survey included some general political knowledge questions and what researchers dubbed a “presidential battery” — basically a survey of 22 questions to measure people’s impressions of, well, presidential-ness. Those covered three broad categories: the president’s standing among other political leaders; his ability to “be a steward” for the national mood; and finally, whether he appeared committed to democratic values.

On the day before the inauguration, a portion of those respondents got an email encouraging them to watch Trump’s swearing-in — and letting them know to expect a survey afterward. The control group also got an email, but it didn’t mention the inauguration either way — just that they should expect some sort of survey. (The authors replicated this for Trump’s address to Congress, but instead encouraged a placebo group to watch the Food Network because they figured a primetime address would be harder to tune out.)

About an hour after the inauguration, the researchers sent out those 22 “presidential” questions to both groups, and some test questions just to make sure the people had watched — i.e., which Supreme Court Justice handled the swearing in.

The researchers found that those asked to tune into the inaugural address and address to Congress were more likely to rate Trump as presidential, based on the responses to the questions.

“Presidential,” of course, is a bit of a catch-all term. The researchers asked a series of questions that measured peoples’ perceptions on whether Trump could fulfill the duties and obligations Americans associate with all presidents — work with Congress; earn the respect of other political leaders; work in the best interests of the country; and uphold democratic values, just to name a few.

That doesn’t necessarily mean people changed their opinions about Trump’s policies or positions — in fact, the researchers didn’t find any evidence that Trump swayed people on those at all. But watching the speeches did change their minds about whether he could broadly do the job of president. Indeed, respondents who had lower opinions of Trump ahead of his public performances had the most dramatic increases in believing Trump could fulfill the obligations of his office.

“Those people who were particularly cool toward Trump — they don’t like the guy — updated quite a bit when they observed him performing in these two big performances,” William Howell, chair of the political science department at the University of Chicago, and one of the authors of the paper, told Vox. “We find is that they come to terms with the fact that he, is in fact, our president, and that he represents the country as a whole.”

The researchers also discovered that visual cues — the flags, the former leaders, the Capitol steps packed with leaders during the Inauguration — influenced those perceptions far more than the content of the speech itself.

Take the ritual of the State of the Union. Trump, like past presidents before him, make their grand entrance into the House chamber. The Speaker of the House bangs the gavel. The American flag is draped behind the president. There’s applause. Standing ovations. More applause-standing ovation combos. This is the visual that embodies for many Americans what democracy looks like — and most specifically, the office of the U.S. president.

It’s not so much that Trump changes into a president once the teleprompter comes on. It’s that this public ritual might actually make it hard not to see him that way. And for those who oppose, or dislike Trump, seeing him perform in this way is potentially an antidote, if fleeting, for some of his more bizarre and unconventional behavior.

“People who were otherwise least inclined to like Trump ... were the most affected by exposure to these kind of rituals,” Ethan Porter, a professor at George Washington and another one of the study’s authors, said. “If you really don’t like Trump, you’re not only equally susceptible to the ritual, the power of presidential symbolism you might even be unusually susceptible.”

So while Trump, or any other president, may participate in these public rituals to try to build support for their polices, the authors suggest it might serve an equally important, and possibly more effective, role in changing “the public’s trust in the president.”

Indeed, the researchers tried to figure out what people, exactly, might be responding to when they felt Trump came off as more “presidential.”

Here, researchers basically created their own (scientific) version of “fake news.” They gave respondents versions of articles about the inauguration. Some got a version with a depressing image (Trump walking an empty parade route, sad!); others got a positive image, such as Trump waving to packed stands. The researchers also prepared two versions of inauguration stories — one with a negative spin, one with a positive spin — and then paired them with pictures in various combinations.

So some people got a positive article with a positive picture; some got a sad picture with a negative article. Others got a mix: a positive picture with a negative article; or negative picture with a positive article. The rest got either just a negative or just a positive article without a picture. Finally, one category just got the actual text of the Inauguration speech.

“Making a President: Performance, Public Opinion, and the (Temporary) Transmutation of Donald J. Trump”

What the researchers found was that the text didn’t matter — good or bad. The respondents reacted most strongly to the pictures. So participants who got a positive picture, even if paired with the negative text, were more likely to think of Trump, as the researchers described it, “committed to American values.”

“Making a President: Performance, Public Opinion, and the (Temporary) Transmutation of Donald J. Trump”

But here’s a downside, at least for Trump: It doesn’t last. Americans lost that “presidential” feeling pretty quickly. In the case of the inaugural address, Americans who watched the speech felt most strongly about Trump’s ability to fulfill the duties of his office right after the speech. When respondents were resurveyed within the next week, those sentiments start to fade. In the case of the inauguration, more than four months later, that glow had worn off entirely.

This study is very Trump specific

The conundrum of “Trump became president tonight” is whether researchers could recreate this phenomenon with a president who isn’t Trump.

“The challenge to Trump is particularly high, not just because of his errant behavior, but because he was never a politician before,” Howell said. “He doesn’t present himself as a statesman in the eyes of many citizens, and so the bar was pretty high for him, and the need is pretty great.”

Different presidents may personalize it, or tweak it the style at the State of the Union, but it tends to follow familiar beats. But presidents also tend to follow certain norms and conventions the rest of the days of the year — and Trump has unapologetically bulldozed a lot of those. So does’s Trump’s unconventional presidency amplify the moments when he’s following the presidential playbook?

Thomas Wood, a study co-author and professor at Ohio State University said, this is an area where one answer is right — they just don’t can’t know until Trump isn’t president. “Trump is a special case because he’s unusually prone to gain benefits from symbolism,” Wood said. “Or he’s a special case because he’s unusually prone to not gain benefits from symbolism. It’s unfalsifiable speculation until we get a chance to replicate on multiple presidential terms.”

It’s also hard to say, exactly, how and why those “presidential” feelings toward Trump fade. Is it because the magic of the presidential ritual wore off — or Trump himself actively destroyed it by doing something say, like tweeting that Obama had his “wires tapped.” (Which did, in fact, happen a few days after his congressional address in February.)

“What we find is there’s an initial bump after the speech, on the measure of presidentialism, [that] appears to persist for about a week,” Howell said. “But then we don’t find any evidence of it months later.”

“It’s a bump, it’s not a transformation,” he added, “and there are plenty of things that can happen over time that can undermine the gains that were had for participating in those performances.”

What’s more, both of these studies occurred at the start of the Trump presidency. And though he took some incendiary actions, such as the travel ban, and repeated glaring lies, including about his inauguration crowd size, he might have still been in something of a honeymoon phase. Even his detractors wanted to believe.

Howell said they recreated the study for Trump’s first official State of the Union address last week. The researchers are still sorting through the data to see whether, one year into a sometimes turbulent tenure, Americans once again encountered the “presidential” Trump.