Don’t listen to the president.
Look at the tax reform. Look at the selection of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, the roiling pace of deregulation.
Just don’t listen.
Republican leaders like House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and members of the Trump administration urge Americans to disregard the president’s words. They insist on ignoring the name-calling, the unflagging attacks on the media and the Justice Department and the intelligence community. They insist on disregarding the race-baiting, the riled-up rallies, the claims to unprecedented powers like the self-pardon. And those taunting tweets? Ryan recently maintained his doe-eyed “I didn’t see the tweet” posturing: “He’s just trolling you guys.” Best to ignore the “daily outrage cycle,” Rubio urged.
Nor is it just Congress. In upholding the third iteration of the president’s travel ban, the conservatives on the Supreme Court appeared to promote the same look-don’t-listen policy. They insisted on attending only to the statutory authority of Trump’s executive order while disregarding his vocal record of discriminatory rhetoric. They ruled irrelevant the president’s incessant calls for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
This focus on record over rhetoric is a striking deviation from how we are used to thinking of the power of the bully pulpit.
In his now seminal text, “The Rhetorical Presidency,” the political scientist Jeffrey K. Tullis made a similar distinction between the president’s indirect and direct powers, between backroom bargaining and public appeals. Presidents’ use of the latter, Tullis argued, has shifted vastly over time. Fiercely guarded against in the first century of the republic, the direct popular appeal by U.S. presidents was gradually unleashed in the second.
The key, whether first taboo or later enthusiastically embraced, has been an unflagging view, a through-line in American history that maintains just how powerful the act of presidential speech is.
Since the nation’s founding, the president’s words have been seen as a commanding force. For the founding generation, the idea of a “Great Communicator” was anathema. And not because his words were meaningless or to be ignored. Quite the opposite.
A president’s speech, his appeal to popular moods, posed a dangerous threat to democracy, separations of power and minority views. As Tullis pointed out, “The Federalist literally begins and ends with this issue.” For direct popular appeals, the act of “going public,” played on the passion and whim of the populace through flattery and division. So much so, that in those days, “popular leader” and “demagogue” were nearly synonymous.
Due to the dangerous populist powers of political executive speech, the Founders erected safeguards — “brakes upon public opinion” — with the indirect selection of the Supreme Court and senators (at the time) as well as the esoterically constructed electoral college. They relied on an “unwritten constitution” of norm and custom to delimit the president from speaking inordinately and with over-exuberance in public.
George Washington set the precedent for such norm and custom in his first inaugural address. Washington addressed only his “Fellow Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives” as part of a careful, conscious effort to avoid matters of popular appeal and majority rule. Instead, he drew his powers from the Constitution.
Washington’s successors followed suit. Discussion of the virtues of republicanism would continue to dominate public speech. Not until after the Civil War were policy matters even incorporated into inaugural addresses. Even Andrew Jackson, the lion of populism, rarely spoke to the people once in office. (By the time he was inaugurated, most of his top teeth were mangled or lost, his ability to deliver an address having long passed.)
Even America’s most celebrated orator-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, most often favored the power of silence and an economy of words. Much of the force of his Gettysburg Address derived from its rare break of such custom. But even then, “few listeners, including soldiers, commented about his speech, and when the press mentioned Lincoln’s words at all, they accorded it second billing to Edward Everett’s two-hour official oration.” The Steubenville Weekly Herald famously summed up the event: “President Lincoln was there too.”
Andrew Johnson was the aberration who proved the rule. His rabid stumplike speeches, back-and-forths with hecklers and penchant for comparing himself to Christ made him a symbol of demagoguery. So galling, it would be this “bad rhetoric” that formed the charges of his 10th article of impeachment.
Theodore Roosevelt became the pivot in his use of what he called the “bully pulpit.” He turned the Founders’ fears on their heads by arguing that his populist entreaty was exactly necessary to fight others’ demagoguery. He declared his battle as one against those like William Jennings Bryan with their “appeal[s] to…the spirit of social unrest, the spirit of discontent.” He departed on national tours, “swings around the circle,” to promote directly his Square Deal between the people and the privileged. But however unprecedented, he insisted his direct presidential campaign was a moderate tour for moderate reform for a “moderate way.”
The real break of custom came with Woodrow Wilson. He saw his fight as one against an inept Congress, powerful party bosses, interest-based factions and those decisions secreted away in committee debates. He lamented that the presidency had become characterized by the veto power, the president’s place chiefly as one of negating action.
So Wilson set out to redefine his job. He would, in his mind, resuscitate the powers of the presidency by employing the fierce power of the pulpit. A former teacher at Johns Hopkins and Princeton, he was a lecturer at heart. And “policy,” Wilson argued, “means massed opinion.” Direct public persuasion would replace the Founders’ reliance on “reputation,” “stature” and “eminence.”
After Wilson, a consistent pattern developed. We have regularly seen traditions discarded to enable more and more direct, popular appeal. From Lyndon Johnson’s rhetorical War on Poverty to Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs to what Jimmy Carter’s political operative Pat Caddell first called the “permanent campaign,” the rhetorical presidency has become indistinguishable from America’s highest office.
As the political scientist Roderick Hart argues, “public speech no longer attends the processes of governance — it is governance.” By exerting personal influence and applying pressure to political relationships, the president has unequal potential to set the public agenda and shape the ensuing discussion. As Hart stresses, “presidents can alter the national imagination.” Through presidential rhetoric a war can become a “police action” or conservatism can be seen as, principally, compassionate. The moon can seem in reach while Puerto Rico appears a continent away.
By developing his cult of personality, Trump has managed to keep Republican partisans chiefly loyal to himself. As Republican former House speaker, John A. Boehner bluntly put it: “There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump party.”
Such were the original worries of the Founding generation over the populist appeal. Such was the purpose of Washington staying nearly mum. For it is not a new conception. The power of the demagogue’s words are not and cannot, as the Rubios and Ryans would have us believe, be ignored.