President Donald Trump has a rhetorical style seemingly without precedent in the White House. It seemed to serve him well during the presidential campaign, where he could ride free media attention to discomfort and undermine his challengers. It has served him much less well since his inauguration.
The early months of the Trump presidency are remarkable in part because they have been characterized by very little policy action but near-constant scandal. Many of the distractions and missteps of the Trump presidency can be traced directly to the president’s own rhetorical efforts, whether in speeches, media interviews, or early morning tweets.
Both supporters and critics have urged Trump to act more presidential. He has responded by insisting that his “use of social media is not Presidential — It’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” He shows no sign of wanting to pivot to a new personal style now that he has won high office. He is confident in and most comfortable with the rhetorical approach that he has cultivated over a long career as a brand manager and reality TV celebrity.
Some have suggested that he has learned from his friend Vince McMahon, the impresario of professional wrestling, and recognizes that you can win an audience by playing the heel and flamboyantly breaking the rules. The president seems disinclined, and perhaps unable, to shed his old persona and rise to the stature of the office that he now occupies.
The “pre-modern” Trump: Andrew Johnson
If Trump himself is unique in the annals of American political history, the widespread concern with the rhetorical style of the occupant of the Oval Office is not. In particular, Andrew Johnson, who rose to the presidency upon Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, outraged his putative Republican allies with his oratorical antics. A combative disciple of Andrew Jackson, Johnson often seemed most comfortable mixing it up with the crowd with extemporaneous remarks at political rallies.
The president shocked the capital when he emerged from the White House to greet serenaders on Washington’s Birthday and quickly moved past giving the traditional thanks, launching into a fiery speech on the failures of the Reconstruction Congress. Egged on by his onlookers, Johnson wound up calling out congressional Republican leaders by name and denouncing them as guilty as the secessionists in their willingness to “pervert or destroy” the constitutional principles of the American government.
A few months later, the president embarked on his “Swing Around the Circle,” where he tried to rally the voters to replace the Radical Republicans in Congress with legislators more to his liking. Embarrassing figures such as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant who initially accompanied the president onstage for what were expected to be ceremonial events, Johnson prompted laughter from the crowds with his attacks on the congressional Republicans and his promise to “kick them out just as fast I can.” His critics gossiped that the president must have been drunk, but really he was just playing to his populist roots.
Things did not work out so well for Johnson. The Republicans gained seats in the 1866 midterm election despite the president’s efforts, and the Democrats had no interest in adopting him as their own. The veto-proof Republican majorities passed Reconstruction measures over the president’s objections, tied the president’s hands in how he could use the military and executive officials, and eventually impeached him.
The powerful norms of political rhetoric
While there are multiple reasons for Johnson’s impeachment, one infamous feature of the Johnson episode is Article X of the House resolution of impeachment. There, the House charged Johnson with acting in a manner “unmindful of the high duties of his office and the dignity and proprieties thereof, and of the harmony and courtesies which ought to exist and be maintained between the executive and legislative branches” by attempting “to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt, and reproach the Congress of the United States” by exciting “the odium and resentment of all good people of the United States against Congress and the laws by it duly and constitutionally enacted.”
In support of this article of impeachment, the House introduced into evidence his stump speeches from the Swing Around the Circle. The vote in the Senate fell one shy of what was needed to convict and remove Johnson, but the senators did not take a formal vote on Article X.
Presidential scholar Jeffrey Tulis deserves credit for putting Article X in perspective in his book on The Rhetorical Presidency. Appreciating the logic of Article X requires a recognition of the informal features of the American constitutional system such as its conventions, norms, or constructions. Presidential rhetoric is relevant to these informal features because, as Tulis details, the classically trained founders were deeply concerned with the problem of demagoguery in popular government, and the set of norms they built up around the presidency emphasized the importance of disciplined ceremonial speeches that contributed to American civic education.
Johnson’s rhetorical style was a shocking departure from those norms. Johnson took to the hustings not to uplift and educate citizens, but to rally partisans with fiery rhetoric. Ben Butler, one of the leaders of the impeachment effort in the House, later credited Johnson’s speaking tour as precipitating the president’s impeachment because it “disgusted everybody.”
From the perspective of 19th-century presidential norms, Johnson’s behavior was obviously incompatible with the dignity of the office, and ultimately with the safety of the republic. Johnson did not appreciate the difference between how an up-and-coming Tennessee politician should carry himself in public and how the president of the United States should present himself to the people. His contemporaries, at least among the political elite, tended to agree with Butler’s assessments, and for decades after the Johnson impeachment, presidents strove to conduct themselves in a manner closer to George Washington’s example than to Johnson’s.
Trump’s rhetoric and populist norm-breaking
President Trump pushes against the boundaries of modern norms of presidential rhetoric just as much as President Johnson did. Trump has carried the boundary-pushing style of his campaign into the White House. Just as Johnson converted ceremonial events into partisan events and shamelessly used the props of the presidency (such as the appearance of Gen. Grant) to advance his personal cause, Trump has done the same.
Just in the past few days, President Trump has violated norms of presidential behavior by urging military personnel to “call those senators” to support his legislative agenda, by criticizing his predecessor to an assembly of Boy Scouts, by exhorting an audience of local police to get rough with suspects, and by luridly denouncing to an Ohio audience the “criminal aliens” and “animals” who would “slice and dice” American teenage girls unless his administration were adequately empowered to take action to protect the nation. While Ohio Gov. John Kasich might lecture that such “coarseness is not acceptable,” some voters at least think he “has set the exact tone I was looking for.”
What happens next?
The question for the political system moving forward is whether Trump’s rhetorical posture will be an exception or a bellwether. Will we “normalize” Trump by following his example and shifting our informal constitutional conventions of how we expect a president to conduct himself in office? Or will we discipline Trump by rejecting his behavior as unseemly and dangerous?
For the congressional Republicans of the Reconstruction Era, impeachment was one tool for rejecting Johnson’s attempted effort to remake the informal norms surrounding the presidency. As Sen. Charles Sumner pointed out to his colleagues during the impeachment trial, the president’s behavior “is without example,” and Congress had a “duty [to] make a precedent” to “counteract” its effect. The impeachment alone, like a resolution of censure, was ample demonstration that everybody was “disgusted” by the president, and future presidential aspirants made clear that they would not follow his example. They would instead seek to restore dignity to the office.
Impeachment is a blunt instrument for restoring dignity to the presidency, but current political leaders must likewise decide whether to isolate or emulate the president. Similarly, voters will no doubt have their own chance to affect the reconstruction of our political norms when they decide which candidates to support for office. Will it be disqualifying if a candidate makes fun of the disability of a reporter or the ethnicity of a judge, or will such rhetorical strategies be rewarded on the campaign trail?
Constitutional norms and populist pressures
Constitutional norms are most often constructed and maintained by political elites, not average voters. Will today’s elites ostracize or embrace politicians who follow Trump’s example? Will they lend political resources to and bestow honors and responsibilities on such politicians, or will they cut them off and leave them to their own devices? Will political leaders and civic organizations follow Gen. Grant’s example and refuse to dignify Trump’s events by appearing alongside him or providing him a platform for his rhetorical excesses? Will presidential aides stand by and even justify the president’s words, or will they distance themselves from it and even resign?
After Trump’s most recent rhetorical volley, political and social leaders have begun to push back. Police officials and the acting head of the Drug Enforcement Agency have publicly rebuked the president. The Boy Scouts issued an apology for Trump’s behavior at their Jamboree. Republican senators have begun to openly criticize the president’s rhetoric.
Four or more years of Trump’s tweets and speeches might well tend to inure our political culture to what might once have seemed beyond the pale of presidential rhetoric. It will likely require conscious and concerted effort to push back against the president’s norm-busting behavior and to insist that he be treated as the exception, not the rule.