Political scientists like to talk about the differences between being the head of state and the head of government. We are nerds like that.
Crudely put, the head of state acts as the symbolic representative of the sovereign nation, while the head of government oversees the bureaucracy and decides on public policy. The head of state is the more ceremonial role of the two. In many countries, these roles are split. In the United Kingdom, for example, the head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, while Prime Minister Theresa May is the head of government. These roles can also be split in non-monarchical governments. Both Germany and Israel, for example, have presidents who function as the head of state, and prime ministers who run the country as head of government.
In the United States, the head of state and head of government are fused into one office, the presidency. Which means that as of right now, Donald Trump is both the head of state and the head of government.
When Trump was about to start his term of office as president, I had a deep sense of foreboding about how well he would do as the head of government. He has mostly lived down to my expectations. I suppose I should be grateful that his incompetence has sabotaged his more destructive policy efforts, but still, the midterm results mean he will face more formidable checks and balances than before.
To be honest, however, I expected Trump to do a better job as head of state. Being head of state requires a lot of pomp and circumstance and grandeur, which are qualities that would seem to fit a man fond of gold leaf. During the campaign it was clear that Trump enjoyed the pageantry of the presidency: the thought of riding Air Force One, and so forth. If there was any dimension of the presidency that Trump would embrace, I thought he would enjoy its symbolic moments.
So it is noteworthy that it is in his role as head of state that Trump has flailed the most. It has been so bad that Trump did something this past week he seldom does; he copped to making a mistake:
So, two things about this. First, a fact check: Trump did not go to Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day in 2017 because he was on his Pacific Rim tour. Second, this just highlights the difficulties Trump has had in his interactions with the military. He did not just pass on going to Arlington on Veterans Day this year. He bailed on joining German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at a wreath-laying ceremony during his misbegotten Paris trip. He has also failed to visit troops in war zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan.
It is not just Trump’s ceremonial interactions with the military that are awkward. Other symbolic tasks seem beyond him. In the past week alone, there was this lulu of a comment when he visited California to survey the fire damage in that state:
It did not take long to find these examples, and I have barely scratched the surface. I did not even get into Trump’s disregard for the SEAL commander who helped orchestrate the killing of Osama bin Laden.
There is just no getting around it: Trump is a God-awful head of state. Why? I can think of three reasons — which, as it turns out, also help to explain why he’s not that great as the head of government either.
First, Trump is not an experienced politician. His supporters love this about him, but it also means that he is unprepared for the performative parts of the job. He has no idea how to read a speech with any conviction (you can always tell when he’s winging it, because those are the only times when there is energy to his voice). He cannot for the life of him display any kind of empathy. He lacks the political instincts to realize that flying all the way to France to not attend an important ritual is a boneheaded move. These are essential traits to competently perform the rituals of a head of state, such as eulogies or commemorations. Trump lacks the muscle memory to do these things well.
Second, Trump wants everything to be about himself, but playing the role of the head of state actually requires more sacrifice than this president can stomach. It means traveling long distances to attend lengthy ceremonies, sometimes in inclement weather. More than the logistics, being the head of state often means directing attention toward others: someone winning a prize, someone in mourning, and so forth. The head of state bestows recognition on others, but Trump only wants recognition directed at himself. The irony is that if he was better at this part of the job, he probably would earn some reflected glory. That kind of logic is beyond him, however.
Finally, being a good head of state requires believing in something larger than one’s self. The ideals that animate this country should stir the soul: a nation conceived in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, resolved that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth. Trump, however, believes in nothing beyond himself, and he cannot feign that belief. When he tries, he ends up going meta and joking about how corny it sounds.
The qualities of a good head of state are not identical to being a good head of government, but there is a fair degree of overlap. Trump is a bad head of state because he is unschooled, soft and cannot conceive of a higher ideal. It helps to explain why he has blundered so much as the head of government.