The Politics of Spectacle
By Mary E. Stuckey, Ph.D.
Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, perhaps most (in)famous for its lack of decorum (Collinson 2016), was also singular in that it was almost without significant policy content (Neidig 2016). This creates problems for the president, as the metrics widely used to judge presidential performance are decidedly policy-based—the famous bar of the “Hundred Days,” for example, is based entirely on the new administration’s legislative achievements. And by that measure, this presidency is doing very poorly indeed (Leonhart 2017).
Lacking both sources of policy development and administration, and without any firm ideological commitment to specific policies, the Trump administration has followed the pattern of his campaign and is now adrift. He remains apparently committed to some kind of health care reform, but he lacks interest in the details of his own signature policy (Radnofsky, Nicholas, & Rubin, 2017). He opposes NAFTA, except that he apparently has decided to maintain the United States’ commitment to it (Liptak & Merica 2017). When it comes to Asia, he is determined to negotiate with North Korea, unless he intends armed conflict with that nation, and his opinions on China are equally variable (Wagner 2017). He has long argued that Mexico will pay for “the wall,” except that he wants Congress to authorize funding for it (Waju, Walsh, & Wright 2017). There has been very little consistency among and between policy preferences in the first few months of the Trump administration, making the White House appear both disorganized and a bit unhinged.
An Unhinged Administration
This administration is indeed unhinged. Not in the sense of being mentally unstable necessarily, but in the sense of lacking connections to established political beliefs, practices, norms, and institutions. Trump’s campaign succeeded in part because he owed no allegiance to these things (Gross 2016), but he is finding his job is not made easier by that lack of allegiance (Weisbrot 2017). He has no clear, unified, understanding of the nation, and no coherent set of policies. His administration is a compendium of gestures toward right-wing disaffection. It is built for Twitter—it is scattershot, occasionally even random, and it appears to be governed by a need for constant stimulation and change rather than thoughtful deliberation. To put this another way, the Trump administration adheres to the politics of spectacle rather than the politics of policy.
Presidencies, of course, have always been about spectacle; presidents from George Washington forward have performed the office as well as administering it (Edelman 1988). I do not mean to be drawing a clear distinction between the performance of the presidency and the policies of the institution. But the Trump administration makes such distinctions very tempting, as it lacks the kind of dedication to policy that animates most presidencies. In general, successful presidencies are those in which presidential performances are consistent with, support, and reinforce policy preferences. Presidents travel, bring others to the White House, and engage in any number of other behaviors to highlight their engagement with specific constituencies, issues, and policies. A well-orchestrated presidency’s public constructions will be relatively seamless—think of Reagan at Normandy or Obama at Selma. But rather than use spectacle to emphasize and make policy arguments, this presidency seems to confuse and conflate policy with spectacle—the ads produced in Trump’s defense by America First Policies (2017) are a case in point. These ads argue that Trump is making policy and keeping his promises, but the evidence provided is derived from spectacle rather than legislative action.
All presidents make mistakes in this regard, of course. Reagan’s visit to Bitburg caused enormous controversy (Olson 1989), and other presidents have occasionally erred in their consideration of what good optics may entail. But this president seems particularly prone to such miscues. Notably, Donald Trump was surprised to discover that the job of the presidency is a difficult one (Cottle 2017). His surprise stemmed both from a kind of personal hubris and a deep misunderstanding of the office as purely performative, as only about spectacle. Policy appears to bore this president; the role of legislative leader seems to hold few attractions for him. But the role of head of state is one he assumes with obvious relish. He seems to enjoy meeting other heads of state (but not other heads of government). He is reportedly eager to ride in the British royal carriage (Seipel 2017a), and he flouts the prerogatives of office (Foran 2016). In other words, this is a president who enjoys the trappings of the office and who seems comfortable with its power, but who fails to recognize the limits of that power, and who has a clear lack of enthusiasm for the laborious parts of the presidency. He apparently finds the daily intelligence briefings as burdensome as the need to lobby Congress (Moore 2017); he doesn’t appear to understand the legislation he is said to support (Wong 2017); and he is notoriously ill-informed regarding the details of his own executive orders (Hartman 2017). It is not surprising, then, that there has been a certain amount of speculation about who is really in charge in the White House (Binckes 2017), a concern that speaks directly to the fear that no one is in charge of national policy-making (Gerson 2017). Such speculation undermines the president’s ability to perform his office.
There has been very little consistency among and between policy preferences in the first few months of the Trump administration, making the White House appear both disorganized and a bit unhinged.
This is a different kind of presidency, one that is moored less in the institutions of national governance and more in the individual (and often erratic) preferences of the individual president. Trump’s relationship with the Republican Party is a troubled and difficult one (Rogers 2017); his relationship with party leaders in Congress is no less fraught (Elliot 2017). Despite these tensions, however, the GOP and its leaders have tied themselves to Trump, and the fate of the party is connected to the fate of the president. This connection, however, does not necessarily go both ways. Trump seems to consider himself in isolation from other institutions and their commitments; he is a political loner. But he is a political loner in an office that requires cooperation and conciliation. Although leaders can run nations of spectacle by themselves, policy and policymaking involves constant, open, and meaningful communication. The national government, as Richard Neustadt (1964) noted decades ago, comprises separate institutions that share power. Trump does not appear to be comfortable sharing.
This tension between the demands of the institution and the apparent preferences of its occupant are one of the hallmarks of the early Trump administration. It has created real problems for that administration, as the president’s personal popularity continues to fall and as his record of political accomplishment remains meager. The administration is mired in scandals ranging from concerns about the conduct of his campaign to the behavior of administration officials and aides. He has had notable trouble staffing his administration (Kessler & Topan 2017) further damaging the administration’s ability to enact policy. The president is a political loner; he may soon find himself uncomfortably alone.
- America First Policies., Delivering. 2017, March 10.
- Binckes, J. (2017, April 10). Think about it: Who’s in charge at the White House? Salon.com.
- Collinson, S. (2016, November 12). The mystery of Donald Trump’s White House. CNN.
- Cottle, M. (2017, April 20). Trump realizes being president is hard. The Atlantic.
- Edelman, M. (1988). Constructing the political spectacle. University of Chicago Press.
- Elliot, P. (2017, April 27). After 100 days, Donald Trump and the GOP still don’t get along. Time.
- Foran, C. (2017, November 22). An erosion of democratic norms in America. The Atlantic.
- Gerson, M. (2017, February 13). A White House where no one is in charge. Washington Post.
- Gross, T. (2016, November 9). Interview with James Fallows. NPR.
- Hartman, M. (2017, February 6). Trump not “fully briefed” on order that gave Bannon NSC role: Report. New York Times Magazine.
- Kessler, A. and T. Kopan, (2017, February 25). Trump administration still needs to fill over 2,000 vacancies. CNN Politics.
- Leonhart, D., (2017, April 26). Donald Trump’s first 100 days: The worst on record. New York Times.
- Liptak, K., & Merica, D., (2017, April 27). Trump agrees “not to terminate NAFTA at this time.” CNN.
- Moore, J. (2017, February 16). Internal memo shows Donald Trump’s daily intelligence briefings are, um, very dumbed down. GQ.
- Neidig, H. (2016, June 19). Trump: “My voters don’t care” about lack of policy specifics. The Hill.
- Neustadt, R. (1964). Presidential Power. Signet Books.
- Olson, K. M. (1989). The controversy over President Reagan's visit to Bitburg: Strategies of definition and redefinition. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 75(2), 129-151.
- Radnofsky, L., Nicholas, P., & Rubin, R. (2017, April 13) Trump shifts back to health care. Wall Street Journal.
- Rogers, E. (2017, February 23). The relationship between Trump and the Republican Party is still evolving, Washington Post.
- Seipel (2017a April 15). Trump wants gold-plated carriage ride with Queen during visit: Report. The Hill.
- Seipel, B. (2017b, May 27). Trump is only G& leader not to hold press conference after summit. The Hill.
- Wagner, J. (2017, April 16). Trump breaks silence on North Korea, defends reversal on China. Washington Post.
- Waju, M., Walsh, D., & Wright, D. (2017, January 6). Trump asking Congress, not Mexico, to pay for border wall. CNN.
- Weisbrot, M. (2017, March 1). Trump takes on the “permanent government”—and loses. The Hill.
- Wong, A. (2017, April 30). An interview suggests Trump doesn’t know what’s in his health bill. Vox.com.
Media Resources: Issue Experts
- Karrin Vasby Anderson, Colorado State University
- Steven Goldzwig, Marquette University
- Kristy Horn-Sheeler, IUPUI
- Jennifer Merceica, Texas A&M University
- Trevor Parry-Giles, University of Maryland