WASHINGTON — President Trump’s address to Congress Tuesday has sparked a debate over the meaning of his suddenly conventional behavior.
Trump came across as a conventional politician in his speech. He didn’t go off script from his prepared remarks. He didn’t indulge his instincts for self-promotion and boasting, but instead talked about working with Congress, and with Democrats, to solve the nation’s challenges.
Cable pundits praised the speech. That prompted eye-rolls from Trump critics, who dismissed it all as mere theatrics.
But one regular detractor of the president’s, John Podhoretz, wrote in the New York Post that “the fact that it was a relatively conventional speech was itself a sign that Trump is surrendering to the logic and traditions of the job he now has.”
And that word “surrender” is key. Trump showed deference to tradition and to institutional norms. It was arguably the first moment of his presidency where he submitted himself to the office of the presidency, rather than acting as if its rules and norms did not apply to him.
Yuval Levin is a Washington-based conservative intellectual who is considered one of the most insightful thinkers on the right. Levin has written two books about conservatism and its application to modern problems. And he is currently spending a lot of time thinking about the decline of trust in institutions, the consequences of that, and how trust can be rebuilt.
One of Levin’s insights is that Trump has viewed and used the presidency as a platform rather than as an institution. A platform is used simply for self-promotion. An institution is something an individual joins to accomplish something he or she cannot do alone. But the price of admission to any institution is some loss of individualism.
Trump was arguably the most anti-institutional presidential nominee in American history, but his speech Tuesday night was the first indication that he sees some value in acting institutionally. Levin answered a few questions over e-mail about how he views Trump’s speech, and the question of his change in style.
We’ve talked about your idea that Trump uses institutions as a platform, rather than conforming himself to them. How did that change Tuesday night?
So I’ve suggested that one way we might think about what institutions do for us and how that’s changing in modern America is to think of institutions in terms of “molds” and “platforms.” An institution can be a mold that helps us achieve something by forming or transforming us — by causing different people, in a sense, to take its shape and therefore become better able to achieve something together. Or an institution can be a platform that helps us achieve something by elevating our ability to express who and what we are in the world. As a general matter, I think we have tended in modern America to move from thinking of our institutions as molds to thinking of our institutions as platforms, for good and bad.
This is evident throughout American life, but we can certainly see it in politics — when it comes to what we think the parties are for, what Congress is for in the eyes of its members, and also what the presidency is for. Most presidents have understood the office as having a certain shape, and that if they successfully take that shape, if they occupy the office, they could become more effective in achieving their goals. Donald Trump at the outset of his presidency has seemed instead to approach the office as a platform — a way for him to be himself on a bigger stage. He has not thought of it as a mold — as an institution with a particular form that he ought to assume in order to deploy its power to advance his agenda. He has approached the office performatively.
I do think his speech Tuesday night was the first time we have really gotten a sense of what the more traditional approach might look like, what Trumpism molded into the form of the presidency could be. This was both because the pomp and circumstance of that kind of moment almost forces you to play a part, but also because (unlike at his inauguration, which also had lots of formal elements) Trump seemed to willingly play the role of the president, and so channel himself through the shape of the institution a little more. Only a little, but even that little suggested the potential of this other way of understanding the power of the institution. He would be much more effective if he did more of that, I suspect.
What are some examples of Trump’s most brazen violations of institutional norms?
I’m not sure “brazen” and “violations” are quite right. It’s more like: Rather than play the role of the president in our system, Trump is playing a different role — which means both that the usual role of president is not being played and that there is this other kind of thing going on at the heart of our constitutional system, something more like performance art. Those are both challenges for everyone else in the system.
On the first front, in terms of not playing the president’s role, I think you see that the legislative process suffers for not having a president play the president’s part — resolving some key policy disputes within his party, prioritizing an agenda, and aggressively driving the process. Our system has come to rely on that, for good and ill, and doing without it will take some getting used to. There seems to be a related dynamic at work in the White House policy process, where instead of working internally to structure the president’s decision process and then working externally to advocate for and defend his decisions, the White House team finds itself struggling to sustain a structure and process internally and then having to perform for the president (rather than on behalf of the president) in the press.
On the second, in terms of something else at the core of the system, I think in Trump’s tweeting about the press and companies and other politicians, his informality in drawing outsiders into his making of hiring decisions and policy decisions, his interactions with foreign leaders, his loose schedule, his basic way of expressing himself — you find a very different model of what the presidency is and what the president does. And at the very least, it will take some getting used to for his staff and for Congress and journalists and everyone else to figure out how to work with what he’s doing and how to understand it.
I think part of the relief that people seemed to express after Tuesday’s speech was just a sense that here was Trump doing what presidents do, and after a month of trying to gain some balance, people felt an unfamiliar sense of normality.
Why does any of this matter?
Well, first of all the presidency matters. And the question of whether Trump will be an effective president or an ineffective one, a strong one or a weak one, an assertive one or a passive one, is still very open, so that every hint about the answer is significant. Also, the rest of the constitutional system has to interact with the president and respond to him, so it matters how people understand what he’s doing and how he would respond to different pressures. The sheer uncertainty about how Trump will act has been debilitating for other people in that system, especially as long as it seems like Trump himself is uncertain how he will act, and the people around him are.
It also matters in a broader sense because our institutions are very important, and Trump’s presidency looks likely to transform the norms and expectations around the presidency in ways that will outlast Trump. If the presidency becomes more of a platform for individuals and less of a mold that shapes how power is channeled, our system of government will be transformed by that — and likely in ways that aren’t helpful to constitutionalism.
Do you think it will it last?
I have no idea if we will see more of the President Trump we saw Tuesday night, or if that was one performance rather than an indication of the man being changed or shaped by the office. I assume it’s ultimately some mix of the two. But I’m skeptical that we will see President Trump change all that much from the person we saw all of last year on the trail, since that’s the person he has been for decades, after all. Like it or not, that’s who our country elected, and we should hope and work to make the most of the potential of this president and to contain the risks and the downsides. That’s always true, after all.
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