Why Donald Trump's idea of 'presidential' is both curious and disturbing
Just as St. Augustine asked the Lord to grant him chastity, just not yet, Donald Trump is ready to be "presidential," just not yet. Whenever he brings up the idea of presidential-ness, Trump always says that a personality transformation is on its way, but will have to be delayed while some more pressing campaign matters are attended to. Like so much about Trump, his conception of what it means to be presidential is both curious and disturbing.
As near as one can surmise, for Trump, to be presidential means to be polite. When he's criticizing his opponents, he isn't being presidential. So he says that when his daughter Ivanka begged him to be more presidential, he replied that he had to knock off the other Republican candidates first. "Let me be unpresidential just for a little while longer, and maybe I'll be a little bit unpresidential as I beat Hillary." He'll often add, "At some point, I'm going to be so presidential that you people will be so bored."
But he promises that at the right time, he will bring the presidential-ness, and bring it hard. "If I want to be, I can be more presidential than anybody. You know, when I have 16 people coming at me from 16 different angles, you don't want to be so presidential. You have to win, you have to beat them back, right?" But he will be "more presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln. He was very presidential, right?"
Well, yes. But Lincoln was happy to make his disagreements with other people clear; his presidential qualities did not consist in turning the other cheek. So what does "presidential" mean to the rest of us? At the simplest level it suggests a combination of dignity and command, someone who holds enormous power and demonstrates him or herself worthy of it. But for most people, "presidential" is less about behavior than about identity: A person doesn't act presidential, a person is presidential.
And until recently, that meant a certain kind of person: a tall, handsome white man, in late middle age, but aging well, strong of jaw and grey of temple, with a firm handshake and a steely gaze. Basically, Mitt Romney. Which is why back when he ran for president, so many people said Romney looked "straight out of Central Casting."
But it may be more accurate to say that Mitt Romney is what used to be considered "presidential." In 2016, that's no longer the case, though it was just a short time ago. When the film Deep Impact was released in 1998, the fact that Morgan Freeman — a black man! — portrayed the president of the United States was seen as somewhere between notable and shocking. Since then, however, Hollywood has given us a whole spate of non-Romneyesque presidents of varying ethnicities and genders. Even 24, in many ways the prototypical right-wing drama of the George W. Bush era, had not one but two black men serve as president, followed by a woman.
Hollywood, of course, is always trying to cram its liberal values down the throats of good old-fashioned heartland Americans. But Barack Obama may have changed forever what we think of when we think of someone being presidential. The default face of a president may still be that of a white man, but the idea is no longer exclusively and necessarily white and male. And now it's entirely possible, perhaps likely, that the nation's first black president will be followed by the nation's first woman president.
That thought makes some people very displeased; as the NRA's Wayne LaPierre said last year when considering Clinton's run for the White House, "I have to tell you, eight years of one demographically significant president is enough." And many of them happen to be the people Donald Trump is appealing most directly to: those who feel that in a changing country, they've lost something as others have gained. With women and African-Americans and Latinos and Asian-Americans all demanding respect and consideration, with popular culture embracing polyglot sounds and challenging ideas, they feel diminished, ignored, passed by, and passed over. They want their country back, and Trump promises to give it to them.
There are many qualities we might associate with being presidential, like maturity, intelligence, thoughtfulness, or compassion. But Donald Trump obviously isn't thinking of that when he talks about being presidential; he seems to think it just means not making up schoolyard nicknames for people or talking about the size of your hands. He may not realize it, but just by being a 69-year-old rich white guy, in the eyes of his supporters he's as presidential as could be. But in 2016, people who see that as the beginning and end of being presidential are probably in the minority. Just like people who support Donald Trump.