Gary Abernathy is publisher and editor of the Times-Gazette in Hillsboro, Ohio.
The overall consensus (sometimes grudging) on the Trump administration’s handling of Hurricane Harvey was that the federal government, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was well prepared and has so far carried out its duties swiftly and effectively.
Many analysts concede that on his measured rollback of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, President Trump is right constitutionally. President Barack Obama’s directive doing what Congress did not regarding children brought to the United States by parents who illegally immigrated was legally shaky at best.
So, all that remains to criticize are matters of optics and levels of visible sympathy. In both cases, Trump’s critics accused him of lacking empathy. With Harvey, Trump didn’t do enough to demonstrate he commiserated with the victims, they said. With DACA, according to a Post editorial that summed up much of the mainstream media’s take, he was “heartless.”
Observing all the hand-wringing over the president’s emotional deficiencies are Trump supporters who come from America’s heartland and who, by and large, are outwardly stoic by nature. They do not wear their emotions on their sleeves. They greet strangers with a subtle nod rather than a showy hug or kiss on the cheek. A parent’s response to a child’s bump or bruise is a quick rub, a pat on the head and a prescription to run along. As they do everywhere, people love each other deeply, but their public displays of affection won’t nauseate any bystanders. Outwardly, the emotional model is more Gary Cooper, less Al Pacino.
I received an email from a reader who shared a letter he sent to his congressional delegation. The letter opened with this complaint about the president: “He never smiles. He never laughs.” My first reaction (before replying with a more congenial one) was, “So what?”
If there is one thing Trump and Hillary Clinton have in common, it is being emotively challenged. This was particularly detrimental to Clinton, since more voters on the left seem to place importance on a potential president’s ability to show his or her emotional depth. Such a requirement is a recent phenomenon, and it was a skill mastered by Clinton’s husband, who so convincingly felt our pain.
At some point, almost certainly since the beginning of the TV age, how a president does something became more important than the thing the president is doing. News reporters have morphed into judges sitting in a row, as if they were the panel on “American Idol,” grading the president’s artistic merit.
Ironically, it was not a Democratic or liberal president who first elevated imagery to equal standing with substance. That honor goes to Ronald Reagan, who refined the art of staging White House events for the cameras, complete with poignant backdrops suited to each occasion. A former actor, Reagan knew how to emote, which is not to say he was never sincere. But he knew how to make sure his sentiments were appropriately visible and his message delivered only when it was deemed camera-ready.
The Reagan template has been carefully followed ever since, with varying degrees of success, considering that not everyone has Reagan’s dramatic gifts. Nevertheless, political events are routinely choreographed to the point of rivaling Hollywood and Broadway in planning and detail.
The news media has dutifully played its role, often with little choice, placing cameras where instructed, framing pictures just so. Most modern political performances are so meticulously scripted and executed that their delivery across media platforms should include the same disclaimer required on official campaign literature and commercials.
It is almost refreshing — in a way the media should appreciate but doesn’t — that the Trump administration has not completely mastered the theatrics of the presidency. The White House may well be hindered in doing so by its lead player, who, despite his television background, has never portrayed anything but a version of himself.
But it is peculiar that much of the media’s criticism of Trump is that he is too undisciplined, which is another way of saying he should be more scripted. Perhaps too many journalists are not old enough to remember presidents before Reagan and the careful stagecraft he initiated.
It is true that Trump displays little outward empathy. Nor does he convincingly display a host of other emotions, not having the political or acting experience necessary to truly hone the craft. But to about half the country, such criticism would be greeted with a giant shrug, if it wouldn’t be considered so overly demonstrative.