January 10, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
A revealing moment occurred last night on “The Story,” when Martha McCallum put up on the screen a pair of TV clips in sequence. The first showed Ronald Reagan, the Republican candidate for president, speaking on October 19, 1980 on the need for strength as a prerequisite for establishing and maintaining peace; the second President Donald Trump addressing the world on the morning of January 8, 2020 about the reasons behind his decision to order the killing of Qasem Soleimani five days before, the results of the Iranian attack on two American bases in Iraq the previous night, and how the situation may be expected to develop in future days, weeks, and months. The theme of Trump’s address was also peace through strength. Reagan spoke with the Soviet Union and Iran in mind. Trump’s immediate concern also–nearly four decades later–was Iran in the immediate the context of the hostilities of the past several weeks, though no doubt he was keenly aware that Moscow and Beijing were listening in. For Miss MacCallum the point of comparison, despite her noting the considerable difference between the personal styles of the two men, was the congruency of Reagan’s and Trump’s foundational strategy in their approach to issues of foreign policy. For me, the distinction was chiefly a matter of address. During the campaign of 1980–and after–Reagan earned as reputation as the “great communicator.” He could be effective, and certainly he was far more so than his immediate predecessors–Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson. He was, however, far less compelling as a speaker than Donald Trump–for audiences, of course, who agree with what Trump has to say, or are open at least to hearing it. One might describe his ability to compel attention as a gift, were it not that it is so obviously an attribute of his personality, the one that determines the manner in which he engages with other people and with the world itself.
I am someone who, owing to personality and an upbringing carefully shut away from radio and television, dislikes being addressed formally in lectures and public speeches. Constitutionally incapable of sustained attention to these harangues, I prefer to wait until the printed version of a text is made available. The single exception to the rule comes when it is Trump who is speaking. I never miss a word of what he says, and my mind never wanders off in any other direction than the speaker. This is because the president, like the candidate, does not orate, neither does he lecture. He speaks–directly, and to me. Always, I have the impression that I am with him in someone’s living room, or sitting a horse beside him on the high sagebrush desert in Wyoming, discussing politics across the intervening space between our two animals. I don’t have the slightest impression how this happens, or whether Trump deliberately makes it happen, or even whether he consciously intends the thing. It is just a part of his nature, which is itself a force of nature. Watching and listening to Reagan talking about peace through strength, I was aware less of what he was saying than that he was aware of his own words, and their delivery. Reagan, the trained professional actor, was listening to himself as he spoke, and “watching” himself, so to speak, as he did it. The effect on me is more than soporific: Public speech of that sort carries a Teflon coating that causes the words to ricochet away and get lost somewhere. Trump never conveys this sort of self-consciousness, this sense of attentive self-monitoring as if he were experiencing a simultaneous playback of his address. Though the pleasure he takes from his rallies shows clearly, and is obviously–and rather charmingly–self-delighted, he is never anything but entirely natural, honest, and uncalculating, though always, too, very deliberate–and careful, in his way. All this he somehow manages to make extemporaneous. That is because he does not fear to be any of these things. Perhaps this is how political candidates sounded in the days before sound recordings, radio, and television. Of course, we shall never know.
I am always–still!–naively amazed by charges that Trump is, in demeanor, an “unpresidential” President. Were I President I should not Tweet, but then I don’t text either, or go on social media. I understand objections to this practice of his, but his base certainly seems to like it. Tweeting–and intense partisanship–apart, however, I find Donald Trump more presidential than any president I can recall back to Kennedy, previous to whom my pre-political memory goes dim. In addition to the previously mentioned characteristics of his public utterances, Trump’s indisputable maleness, his astounding confidence that never fails him, his boldness, and the image he conveys of strength, personal and convictional, are simply unmatched by his more or less recent predecessors in office. I wonder whether, in this emasculated age of metrosexual men and aggressive overbearing women who appear to resort regularly to injections of testosterone to bolster and defend their feminist claims, this isn’t really the left’s fundamental problem with Trump. He’s as much a threat as a man to them as he is as a President.