Political Theater: In front and behind the curtain

The forthcoming Presidential election is troubling to all believers in America’s democratic traditions—although for widely different reasons. The principal agendas of various groups of Americans differ in substantial ways. In our view, it is the failing attention to both internal and external order by a long-run sequence of Presidents that is the ultimate danger. Forgetting the importance of both dimensions of order upsets an ancient requirement of any polity. Forgetting it as a leader of America is unforgivable…it is the very cornerstone of the American experiment.

Order at home and abroad are vigorously attested by the 85 Federalist Papers, but no less, by the so-called, but not frequently cited, essays of the Anti-Federalists who were deeply fearful of the signally strengthened Presidency of our new Constitution of 1787. The immediate passage of the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) attenuated some but not all such fears. More accurately, it was the bearing, diction and carefully staged military-like posture of our first President that buttressed the dignity and probity of the office. Washington was aware of the precedent-setting nature of those first terms. He actually became distressed over the rancor and apparent corruption that he encountered. It so angered him that he issued his famous “Farewell Address” and published it some two years before the end of his second term (also setting another precedent for future Presidents to follow with a “farewell address” upon their retirement).

The importance of dignity and probity in the highest office underscores its evident absence in the current Presidential campaign. The widely held suspicions of many voters descend from the speeches and remarks now made by both candidates and their multi-tongued supporters. Each has significantly demeaned the office of the presidency by the language they use in campaign appearances and the explicit indignities they heap on their opponent. It is likely that such verbal tactics do not improve either’s chances in attracting more than their existing bases, while they deeply demean the integrity of our election process.

It is not a mere issue of language use. The Presidency combines the office of the Head of State and the Chief Executive of the State as distinct from a Constitutional Monarchy where the offices are separate. In the latter, the Chief of State is the King or Queen, but the Government is headed by a President or a Prime Minister. The Royals rule by their majesty, not by officially designated power. It is symbolic and not by accident that they command devotion and respect. The long reign of Elizabeth II emphasizes that majesty and dignity gave her political power and influence. Those characteristics also produced reverence for her governance by her subjects and an appalling contrast to the current politics of America.

Candidate Trump denigrated his opponents both within his own party as well as his chief opponent who now sits in the White House. With an emerging age issue of his own, ridiculing the current 81 year-old Biden might enhance the ardor of the Trump base—which has nowhere else to go—but it continually causes irrationality among other potential supporters that Trump will need to win over to govern successfully. Trump is well-behind in funding his campaign as well as raising needed funds for the Congressional Republican campaign. Where are the resources to be found? They will not be found substantially among his déclassé base which shouts approval no matter how ugly his language gets. His current mode of address—focused on demeaning characterizations is a kind of ‘gutter-speak.’ It lacks the dignity, poise, and elevated sense of command that is needed for the epic decisions a President needs to make and for the public to follow!

Trump showed this technique early in the Republican Party debates of 2016. He belittled the physical characteristics of his competitors. He called them childlike names. Presumably, his victory as the nominee engraved that technique on his approach to communication, but it fails to reach out to the larger audience he needs to command in order to govern successfully. He countered it somewhat by his choice for Vice President, Mike Pence, who was his opposite in demeanor, courtesy and speech. That is now gone while Pence is reviled by the usual Trump mannerisms because Pence refused to go along with Trump’s effort to overturn the electoral vote. What the public largely credits Pence with is seemingly sober judgment on the institution of Presidential succession—the very decision that Trump chooses to slander by his verbal idiom.

If one were a Senior Advisor to Trump in this election, that advisor could possibly convince Trump to completely jettison his current mode of popular address; to take it out of the gutter; to use subtler humor and clever ripostes as a way of elevating his campaign for an enlarged audience. Those are the presentation characteristics displayed by very able large corporate leaders and historically important politicians. The country is aching deeply for such leadership at a time of extreme domestic and international disorder.

Could Trump make such a change? It seems highly unlikely. It is not even very likely that a Senior Advisor would attempt to make a strong pitch for such a change, given Trump’s record of discharging those with whom he disagrees. The singular mark of a ‘corporate’ approach to leadership is the ability to abide policy disagreement from well-established advisors with long histories of success. Governance today is far too complicated for the Chief to be expert in every area requiring his decision. Could Trump change course on his manner of presentation? Doubtful!

He misses many boats. He chooses the low road rather than a higher road of sober erudition. Whatever President Obama’s failures both domestically and internationally, he presented well—well enough that large portions of the commentariat avoided direct confrontation with his political decisions. It took evolving history to clearly reveal that real substance might be lacking. It is unlikely that Trump can absorb the self-criticism that a presentation change like this might require.

Given the somewhat shattered nature of the “Blue Alliance,” Trump can still possibly win—but he cannot govern successfully. The U.S. will again be bereft of both domestic and international allies necessary to implement thoughtful policies. It is sufficiently long that people forget how artful was Bush I’s presentation in the build-up of his successful coalition to remove Saddam Hussain’s army from Kuwait. Even the Russians contributed! Trump seemingly shoves away foreign and domestic alliance-building. He denigrates those who could be brought into a larger tent and often offends foreign leaders when keeping an alliance together is crucial to the policy agenda decided upon behind the curtain.

What history tells us about leadership—-particularly previously elected leaders who faced huge domestic and international crises—is that sober and sagacious words can count importantly. They can reflect meaningful purpose and the display of resolve. Politically “big” politicians win when they reflect those characteristics whether rhetorically or otherwise. “Little” politicians are seen as simple-minded or undignified. The “bigs” win by a combination of admiration, respect and a fear of being left out of a successful coalition, even when they practice skullduggery of purpose behind the curtain.

Politic begins as “Showtime.” We know this from FDR, from Reagan and from Washington and Lincoln. We don’t easily get behind the curtain to see the intricacies of geopolitical or domestic strategy or of the tradeoffs that tactics bring. What we see, however, is very important conditioning of our attitudes, and what other leaders often base their decisions upon. A good “Showtime” is the Overture and the First Movement. The FINALE is—behind the curtain—and involves the trades that get the potential allies on board to create the momentum for success.

Language gives flexibility to a superior politician. It mediates between his(her) own political interest and the encouragement of alliances which only may be knitted together for a moment. Good, attractive language resonates, and covers problems when they finally occur. Churchill was often better in defeat than in victory because he stitched the victims together who could otherwise be bent out of shape by a lack of sensed leadership. He survived Gallipoli and Narvik—bad political gambles—and survived long enough to win. His political defeat came when winning WWII was no longer in doubt and the electorate was very tired of the sacrifice he had motivated for so long. It echoes in his speeches such as June 4, 1940 after the disaster at Dunkirk.

Can we imagine a re-tooled Trump idiom like a Churchillian rouser? It should only happen!
It would catapult many dollars now held back by the suspicious and wealthy who have trouble digesting his lamentable language  that he has been using for so long, particularly as the aggrieved victim of a vast conspiracy against him. It is hard to get behind a perpetual victim. It would put resources into the Republican campaign and divert attention from the many legal contests scheduled to come to the current campaign.

The country wants a winner—a show of triumph by a leader, not a steady stream of invective. Pity is not the weapon of the hero. The country needs to believe that politics can be helpful. A pitch like this  awakens the many and would unnerve our foreign enemies. It would give Trump “Command Presence” where now his snide gutter-talk turns off potential supporters.

Surely, it is time that this White House and its prosecutorial allies in the Blue States and Cities have made a ‘life in court’ dominate the ‘behind the curtain’ deep think on policies for a winning Trump campaign. If Trump wants the glow of achievement and legacy, he can only get it with an appeal to grandeur, not by assaulting his competitors with verbal degradation.

This USA—now badly divided and disoriented—craves the gracious phraseology and inspiring word-smithing of a truly regal leadership. It hasn’t had that combination since the failed Obama two-term combination of soaring oratory but failed foreign and domestic policy.

Behind the curtain there must be thoughtful geopolitics and clever tactics to make the “other guy” die for his country! Behind the curtain there must be the willingness to listen to advice that the President may not wish to hear and to which he instinctively disagrees. He needs to deliberate more behind the curtain and needs to avoid the oft-fatal negative response because the advice is “not invented here.” Conflicting advice from partisan advisors is the threshing that leads to fewer mistakes later regretted.

Trump should hear the obiter dictum passed on Lincoln: ‘It was a cabinet of lawyers and Lincoln out-lawyered them all.’ And, if Trump’s willingness to change would lure a speech writer as capable as Lincoln, he might achieve the praise that Edward Everett gave Lincoln: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln mulled his words carefully as he trained to Gettysburg that very sorrowful day, but it was part of the binding that would heal a nation someday.

The renewal of internal and external order fatefully depends on Leadership. In turn, leadership has roles to play in front of the curtain and behind it. Gaining an enlarged audience requires skillful and attractive presentation. After building an enlarged audience comes the threshing that achieves better policies. Good policy depends upon thoughtful strategy and well-executed tactics. It begins with “Showtime” but it ends with victory. That is the one-two punch that Trump needs to develop and the nation needs to hear and see!