The study of the American presidency is a mainstay of American political science – maybe the main mainstay. Nothing is as central to the discipline as the White House – the persona of the person who has been in it, how he has performed, and what exactly he has or has not accomplished. Notwithstanding the intent of the Founders – to decentralize the United States government – our preoccupation from the beginning of the Republic, including in the academy, has been with the man who more than any other single individual has dominated the national discourse.
Political scientists as well as historians have tended to divide the presidential office into different roles. In his 1956 classic, The American Presidency, the eminent scholar Clinton Rossiter proposed three: first, Chief of State; second, Chief Executive; third, Commander in Chief. Since then other roles have been proposed, such as Legislative Leader and Party Leader. But in the main the three to which Rossiter pointed have stuck – they are still considered the most central, and the most critical.
Which brings us to Donald J. Trump. Well into the fourth year of his first, perhaps his only presidential term, it has become clear how he has performed and where his passions lie, specifically as they pertain to being Chief of State, Chief Executive, and Commander in Chief.
The last of the three can be dismissed with dispatch. There is no evidence that President Trump is a warrior, lusting to play the part of leader of America’s armed forces. In fact, after early romances with several of the nation’s most prominent military men, the love is gone – as are they. Generals James Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and John Kelly did not last long in the Trump White House which, it turned out, was perfectly fine with the Commander in Chief. He never did want them for their military prowess, and he strained against their military manner.
What about Trump as Chief Executive? Is this the role most suited to his skill set, such as it is? Or, at least, is it the role most in line with what he likes to do, enjoys doing? Turns out the answers to these questions too are no. Rossiter says the Chief Executive is charged with running the government, quoting Alexander Hamilton writing in The Federalist, “The true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.” Well, evidence is not only that Trump has no aptitude for running a government, but also that he has no interest. Not the slightest. Not the slightest interest in being an efficient manager or for that matter an effective leader.
We have known all along that before he became president, Trump had no political, military, or government experience or expertise whatsoever. We have also known all along that after he became president his interest in the specifics associated with being Chief Executive, and his level of curiosity about what it actually takes to run the government and to supervise the executive branch, have been low, very low.
If there was even a smidgeon of doubt about this in January 2020 there can be no doubt left in May 2020. Since the start of the pandemic Trump has sought at every turn to thrust the leadership and management of the pandemic into the hands of someone else – anyone else. The Vice President, members of his Cabinet, medical experts, chief executive officers of major American companies, and, most obviously, most strikingly, all 50 of the nation’s governors. President Trump has done the previously unthinkable. Rather than taking on the task himself, he has charged the 50 governors of the 50 states with running the show. With leading Americans out of the coronavirus crisis, and with taking care of business, literally, until the crisis has passed. Not for this Chief Executive the apparently tedious details associated with heading the executive branch.
Which brings us to the president as Chief of State. On this I quote Rossiter directly. The president “remains today, as he has always been, the ceremonial head of the government of the United States, and he must take part with real or apparent enthusiasm in a range of activities that would keep him running and posing from sunrise to bedtime …. Some of these activities are solemn or even priestly in nature; others … are flirtations with vulgarity.” It is this role – that of figurehead as opposed to working head – to which Trump has gravitated. It is this role to which the nation’s first television-star president is most naturally drawn, and it is this role that he prefers, to the exclusion of the others, to play.
Trump does not play the part of Chief of State with “apparent” enthusiasm. He plays it with “real” enthusiasm. He does not feign his pleasure at being president. His pleasure in being president, more precisely in playing the part of president, is genuine. This distinction – between being president and playing the part of president – is an important one. For Trump’s passion is not now, nor has it ever been, for exercising the actual tasks at hand. His passion is not, in other words, for power over policy. With a few exceptions – yes, such as The Wall – his investment in public policy is low, and his ideology is fluid as opposed to fixed. This Republican was, after all, a Democrat for most of his life. Instead, Trump’s passion is for performance. He does not actually want to be Chief Executive or Commander in Chief or for that matter Legislative Leader or Party Leader. What Trump wants instead, desperately wants instead, is to play the part of Chief of State, fancy trappings, and abject loyalties, included. It’s why he will do what he thinks it will take to remain Chief of State four more years.
Added note: My colleague, Todd Pittinsky and I, recently became interested in leaders with unbridled passions. To this end we wrote a book titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. It will be published in September by Cambridge University Press.