Ronald Reagan was called "The Great Communicator," because more than any president who came before him he understood how best to play to the television cameras. He knew how intimate television was, so he didn't speak too loudly; his acting career taught him how to convey emotion; and he was good at ad-libbing, with a joke or an expression of outrage to suit the moment. While the effects of his TV wizardry in getting everyone on his side are often overstated, there's no doubt that Reagan understood how to communicate in different situations and tried hard to persuade those who didn't agree with him.
What our current president's first overseas trip is proving is that Donald Trump is The Miserable Communicator, a politician uniquely unable to pull his listeners in, to persuade, or to unite people with his words and feelings. In fact, it's hard to think of a president who was worse at any politician's first job — talking.
Consider the statement Trump gave Tuesday after the bombing in Manchester:
So many young, beautiful, innocent people living and enjoying their lives murdered by evil losers in life. I won't call them monsters, because they would like that term. They would think that's a great name. I will call them, from now on, losers. They're losers. And we'll have more of them. But they're losers. Just remember that. [Trump]
Trump was reading a prepared statement that he appeared to veer from at times, but White House aides said it was his idea to use the term "losers" to describe ISIS terrorists. Which happens to be the same term he applies to Cher or Rosie O'Donnell. One almost expected him to add, "If ISIS were on The Celebrity Apprentice, I would fire them. That's what losers they are."
It's not just his limited vocabulary that restrains Trump's ability to communicate, though that plays a part. It's also his limited emotional capacity. At times of fear and danger, citizens look to the president for reassurance and explanation, and he can't muster up the words that would provide it. Going on about what losers terrorists are, Trump never looked so weak and pathetic, a man utterly unable to offer anything the moment demanded — no condolence, no resolve, no hope of triumph, nothing.
The day before, at the end of his visit to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, Trump left a note that read like a high school yearbook inscription: "It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends — so amazing + will never forget!" Those were the profound thoughts that came to Trump upon contemplating one of the most horrible crimes in history. Trump seems not to experience the full range of human emotions, both good and bad. Have you ever seen him laugh? You haven't, because he never does. He may get angry or sullen, but he seems incapable of empathy — and being connected to other people emotionally is one of the things that helps us find the words that will draw them to us.
That doesn't mean Trump isn't sometimes capable of powerful rhetoric, but it's only of a very specific type. It's a rhetoric of fear and resentment and hatred, and it's aimed solely at those who already support him. He can work up a crowd with visions of foreign hordes killing their children, but he can't find arguments that would plausibly appeal to his political opponents, even though he is positively consumed with selling, all the time. (His deranged hyperbole may be best understood as a version of what you'll find on an infomercial touting the life-changing benefits of some new kitchen gadget. But there's a reason we don't hand the nuclear codes to the Shamwow guy.)
Some have suggested that Trump's disjointed speaking style is evidence of cognitive decline, since he seems far less articulate now than he was during interviews a couple of decades ago. But even if that weren't true, you'd think Trump would have enough self-knowledge to employ a cadre of gifted speechwriters who could craft eloquent words for him. Every significant speech he gives, however, seems to be written by policy adviser Stephen Miller, who hasn't shown himself to be much of a wordsmith. Indeed, Trump's speeches have been memorable mostly for their shocking lines ("I alone can fix it," "American carnage") rather than their inspiring and insightful turns of phrase.
One might argue that just as Reagan mastered television, Trump has mastered Twitter. But even there, all Trump succeeds at is getting attention. His tweets certainly drive the news, but usually it's because he has said something impossibly dumb or offensive. He may have 30 million followers (slightly more than Wiz Khalifa, slightly fewer than Miley Cyrus), but there's no telling how many actually like him, or follow him for any reason other than comic relief.
There will come a time with President Trump will be called on at very short notice to speak to the country in a moment of crisis. The citizenry will look to him to bring them together in a spirit of shared feeling and common purpose. Perhaps when that time comes, he'll surprise us and show depths of eloquence and emotion that we hadn't thought he could muster. But I doubt it.