The show also demonstrates that symbolic power does not come automatically with the role of head of state — a role that both Queen Elizabeth II and President Trump play. Queen Elizabeth has mostly been an effective practitioner of symbolic politics. Trump, in contrast, has had enormous difficulty playing the role of head of state, because of his personality, his political strategy and the institution of the presidency.
‘The Crown’ is about the difficult job of being head of state
The United Kingdom is one of many countries that formally separate the head of state and the head of government. The different roles of monarch and prime minister are described in Walter Bagehot’s 19th-century work on the English constitution, which distinguishes between its “dignified” and “efficient” parts. The monarch heads the “dignified” part to “excite and preserve the reverence of the population.” The “efficient” part, which “works and rules,” is headed by the prime minister and the cabinet.
In the United States, the president plays both roles: “dignified” in representing the national externally and unifying it internally as well as “efficient” in making policy that often divides. As the political scientist Juan Linz argued, however, presidential systems possess a structural contradiction. A successful president must be both a partisan chief executive and a head of state who represents the entire electorate and society.
This is the presidential paradox: When division is deepest, and unifying symbolism is most important, a presidential system is least likely to produce that symbol. Despite these challenges, most modern presidents have navigated these dual roles with varying degrees of success.
Being a head of state is harder than it looks
Beneath the family melodrama of “The Crown” lies an important political truth: The positive symbolism of a head of state cannot be taken for granted and must evolve over time.
In the second season of the series, Lord Altrincham attacks the monarchy as out of touch and out of date. Again, in the third season, Queen Elizabeth’s response to the 1966 disaster at Aberfan, in which a coal tip collapsed, killing 144 (including 116 children), is portrayed as late and inadequate (a theme also dramatized in the film “The Queen,” about the palace’s slow response to the death of Princess Diana in 1997). Nevertheless, over time, Queen Elizabeth was able to overcome her temperamental handicap of personal reserve and to maintain her symbolic role as head of state. The recent and unprecedented suspension of Prince Andrew from his public duties “for the foreseeable future” only confirmed the monarchy’s intention to protect its future status from scandal in a contentious political environment.
Much of the time, the life of a constitutional monarch (or president in a parliamentary democracy) is sedate, simply approving governments presented to them by party leaders and electorates. Even in the time of Queen Victoria, Walter Bagehot noted, the “occupations of a constitutional monarch are grave, formal, important, but never exciting.” In some divided parliamentary regimes, however, a skillful monarch or president may play a more active political role, stabilizing and even building governments. Both Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s longest serving president (2006-2015) and Belgium’s Albert II, who abdicated in 2013, played (and were criticized for) their active roles in managing repeated political crises. As European party systems continue to fragment, heads of state may have to play a more prominent role in the formation of governments.
Trump has failed to act as a head of state — and it may have political consequences
It is harder for a U.S. president to handle the symbolic aspects of the job, precisely because of the clash with the partisan responsibilities. This contradiction has been particularly clear during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Trump’s temperament is a poor fit with the responsibilities of a successful head of state. As documented by Daniel Drezner, Trump has consistently avoided or violated many of the customary and symbolic roles of the president, from the minor (attending the Kennedy Center Honors) to the major (his reluctance to visit U.S. troops abroad and political attacks against veterans and military officers). His rhetoric has rarely aimed to unify the country and its citizens.
Compare Queen Elizabeth and Trump on one of the major rituals of a head of state: honoring the war dead. During her long reign, the queen has missed only six Remembrance Day services, while either pregnant or on an overseas visit. In contrast, Trump has so far skipped the customary placing of a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day. Although he spoke at an American cemetery in Paris on that date in 2018, he missed a commemoration of the World War I armistice with world leaders two days earlier.
Temperament isn’t the only explanation for Trump’s failure; there are also political and structural reasons. Trump arrived at the presidency in deeply polarized political circumstances. Unlike many other presidents, he has chosen to seek reelection by mobilizing his existing base rather than extending his coalition. Divide and excite conflicts with comfort and unite.
Trump’s weakness as a head of state may matter for him politically
Trump’s performance as head of state may matter for his political future. A Pew Research Center Survey recently confirmed a deep partisan divide in whether respondents agreed with Trump on “many or all issues.” Unsurprisingly, Republicans mostly agreed, and Democrats mostly disagreed.
What was more revealing was the low level of approval for “the way Donald Trump conducts himself as president” among Republicans: Only 38 percent approved (conservative Republicans were more approving). This is consistent with another survey in which 70 percent of respondents viewed Trump’s behavior as not presidential and similar large majorities agreed that he doesn’t have the “personality and temperament” to serve as president.
If the general public finds Trump lacks important qualities of a presidential head of state, expert opinion is even more negative: After one year in office, Trump was ranked at the very bottom of a survey of “presidential greatness” by political scientists. Surprisingly, even self-described conservatives ranked Trump as 40th, ahead of only four other presidents.
None of these survey findings are perfect proxies for performance as head of state, but they suggest citizens may evaluate Trump in terms of his symbolic responsibilities as well as his actions as chief executive.
Miles Kahler is senior fellow for global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and distinguished professor at American University’s School of International Service.