Richard Levick, Esq., Chairman and CEO, LEVICK
If asked to define “presidential leadership,” most communications professionals would, I suspect, cite such traditional qualities as consistency, thoughtfulness, and the capacity to rise above narrow partisanship. To which the current occupant of the White House, New York native Donald Trump, would snarl: “Fuggedaboutit!”
Restraint and reflection? They’re for losers, Trump has been communicating in word and deed since Inauguration Day.
Trump won the White House by flouting tradition and thumbing his nose at political convention. His Twitter-driven defiance reached full boil Saturday night, when he delivered a red-meat speech to a rabid crowd in Harrisburg, PA.
What made Trump’s Harrisburg moment so remarkable was not its rhetorical content – after all, we’ve heard many times his belligerent attacks against the media and political adversaries – but its timing and optics. It came at the 100-day mark of his administration – a measuring stick that scholars and reporters have used to appraise presidential effectiveness since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fabled first term. During the campaign, in fact, candidate Trump constantly framed his agenda around the 100-day goal, promising to deliver. Bigly.
To be charitable, it hasn’t quite worked the way Trump envisioned. He has been forced to beat a retreat on a host of fronts, from repealing and replacing Obamacare to building a wall on the Mexican border to imposing a Muslim travel ban. Many of his difficulties can be traced to his leadership style, which combines bombast with an erratic fealty to policy proposals, some of which appear to have a shelf life of days, if not hours. One afternoon the Trump White House vows to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The next morning it announces that NAFTA just needs to be reformed, not rejected. If the American public seem confused, imagine how Canada and Mexico must feel.
But Trump’s Harrisburg “speech” was not about substance, it was about show business – with a healthy dose of P.T. Barnum thrown into the mix. The president’s aides knew for weeks that the event would take place directly opposite the White House Correspondents Dinner. They deliberately concocted a split-screen contrast: Trump revving up his working-class base as Washington and Hollywood elites wined and dined in black tie while making snarky comments about the president. The optics, at least superficially, worked in Trump’s favor – and he and his staff exploited them. Pundits may decry Trump’s absence from the correspondents’ dinner but my guess is that his hard-core supporters – whose disdain for elitism propelled Trump’s rise to power – loved it.
With its nasty skewering of the media, the Harrisburg event may not have embodied the “leadership” that most communications professionals associate with U.S. presidents. But it’s the only form of leadership that Donald Trump, at least at this point in his presidency, knows how to pursue.
Will it work over the long haul? As a veteran of public affairs wars, I can say without hesitation that Trump violates most of the “rules” to which I’ve subscribed for the length of my career.
He has made the media his enemy and branded any coverage he doesn’t like “fake news.” Never get into a public wrestling match with organizations that buy ink by the barrel is one of our industry’s precepts. Another is never let a dispute with a news organization get personal. Trump has thrown both maxims off the Truman Balcony.
Still, every communications professional should have palpitations over Trump’s blame-the-press-at-all-times strategy. When the Forth Estate becomes the enemy, when an American president attacks the media at every turn, our democracy suffers.
In their remarks at the correspondents’ dinner, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two crusading journalists whose investigative work was instrumental in exposing the Watergate scandal, deplored Trump’s contempt for the media.
Woodward and Bernstein reminded us that Trump may be scoring points with the 40-odd percent of voters who hate the media as much as he does (or at least pretends to), but a strong majority of the country still believes in a free and vigorous press. Most journalists take their responsibilities seriously; they don’t like the president attacking their integrity. Eventually, they will have their day.
Plus, there’s that small matter of reporters writing the first draft of history. Get your victory laps in now, Woodward and Bernstein seemed to be telling Trump. No one outruns the First Amendment. And no amount of optic manipulation and film score music can unmake where history will go.
The system – Congress, the courts, the media, and state and local governments – has so far proven a formidable “check” against Trump. To achieve a legacy of anything beyond divisiveness, he’ll need to school himself in the very things he loathes: civility and the limitations of presidential power.
A president takes an oath of office to the entire country, not just his base. Trump to date has not shown much interest in reaching out to Democrats, independents, and nervous Republicans.
Whatever that is, it’s not leadership.