“And will the real Donald Trump please stand up!”
These famous words originated from the old game show, “To Tell the Truth,” which aired beginning in the late 1950s and then returned for a time to end in 2016.
President Trump presents three personas in his role as our chief executive: Teleprompter Trump, Raw Meat Trump and Twitter Trump, according to a “Christian Science Monitor” article I recently read. Understanding these three personas will help to separate and to understand our president’s words and actions.
Teleprompter Trump: This is the persona you saw if you watched the recent State of the Union message before Congress. For 80 minutes, Trump played that role, pushing for bipartisan cooperation with the Democrats, patriotism and economic growth.
He played this role well, using average people of many races and nationalities whom he held up to praise as examples of the best of humanity: a firefighter who had saved 60 children in a California summer camp, trapped by a blazing wildfire; a Coast Guard petty officer who had helped rescue people from Hurricane Harvey; and a North Korean defector who risked his life to escape to freedom, losing his leg in the process, but holding up his crutches as a sign of defiance to North Korea’s Kim Jung Un.
Most viewers saw a president trying to reach out emotionally to bind Americans together rather than to divide them. It was his most presidential speech.
Raw Meat Trump: This persona is usually found at Trump’s rallies where he uses his “dog whistle” phrases to stir up his base of support which numbers somewhere around 30 percent of the voters. “Dog whistle” phrases are the catchwords he uses to appeal to racism and white nationalism and America Firsters – things that got him elected in the first place, like “murdering immigrants,” “fake news” and “build a wall.”
It’s very unusual for standing presidents to continue to campaign after they win the election. Most presidents try to heal the divisions that every presidential race creates and bring the nation together again. Playing to one’s base is usually seen as counterproductive. But Trump is a political novice who is only slowly learning what it is like to be a politician. It’s an art form that is usually learned while holding office at lower government levels, something Trump has not experienced.
Twitter Trump: This is the Trump persona that bypasses formerly-normal channels of communication with the American people through the news media. It appeals directly to his supporters. It is a unique form of direct democracy that our president has used thousands of times during his first year in office.
Most of these Twitter messages have confused and embarrassed his Republican allies in Congress, outraged and united his political opponents, and frustrated his White House advisers. They have forced his vice president, his chief of staff, his secretary of state, and others to try to explain them away to the nation and to foreign leaders. Twitter Trump is often contradictory to what he said the day before will say the day after. It shows Trump’s lack of impulse control and reveals his thoughts as they change from moment to moment. These Twitter messages have not served him well in getting his agenda turned into policy and law. Federal judges have used them to decide that his thinking is both biased and unformed. They have weakened his presidency among the general populace.
Which of these personas is the “real” Trump? They all are. Our president is a complex personality who is unused to people listening to his every word and taking those words seriously. One thing I teach my civics and government students is that, when dealing with law and government, words matter. Any politician worth his salt quickly learns to choose his words carefully lest they come back to bite him in the future.
The majority of Americans favor the Teleprompter Trump, wishing the other two personas would go away. His political base loves Raw Meat Trump because it makes them feel like he cares for them and their issues. Twitter Trump is a mixed bag: his supporters are both embarrassed and pleased at the same time. They love his honesty and directness, but they are also embarrassed by some of the stupid and contradictory things he tweets.
Don’t expect any of these personas to disappear. All we can hope for is that time and experience will cause Teleprompter Trump to dominate. Until then, depending on your perspective, either rejoice at your president’s personas or cringe at this caricature of a positive role model in high office.