“The Bully Pulpit”
Even 6 months into the Trump Administration, I have to admit that I am still astounded, almost daily, that this guy actually is the President of the United States. It’s like waking up in Superman’s Bizarro World on a daily basis. The introduction of Anthony Scaramucci as the new Communications Director is yet another odd turn for the S.S. Trump. During his extended introductory press conference, “Mooch” (yet another Goldman Sachs alum) cited Teddy Roosevelt’s coining the term “bully pulpit,” praising his new boss as a kind of master of that pulpit, Yet anyone who knows U.S. history knows: a) Donald Trump could not be farther from being T.R. and b) Trump has created his own “bullying pulpit” (which is also a bullsh*t pulpit), not at all like Roosevelt’s conception of exercising presidential power.
In January of 2016, The New Republic’s Kara Alaimo wrote a piece called The Decline of the Bully Pulpit. Written in anticipation of Obama’s last “State of the Union” address Alaimo noted:
When Teddy Roosevelt coined the term, he did not intend for the phrase to contain negative implications; in the vernacular of his day, “bully” meant first-rate or excellent, reflecting his estimation that with the office came an opportunity to reach a vast audience. Today, the bully pulpit is widely held to impart significant advantage to presidents by equipping them with a powerful megaphone to persuade the American people and other political actors to support their positions. The platform is perceived to be especially potent because it is a prerogative all the president’s own, unencumbered by other branches of government. No member of Congress or Supreme Court justice can vet his prose.
Indeed, the President, historically, has used the office to energize the populace behind certain issues (TR’s progressive reform agenda, for example). However, by 2016, Alaimo observed that not only Obama, but many of his predecessors, had not been very successful in using the bully pulpit. According to Alaimo:
Why haven’t modern presidents had more success harnessing the bully pulpit to achieve their goals? First, the president rarely speaks directly to the American people. Edwards says that the only circumstances in which the president is likely to do so are during the State of the Union address and in the midst of scandals or military actions. Presidents used to be able to command network television coverage when they wished to address the American people, but, according to Edwards, that changed after a “network rebellion” began in the 1970s (The scholar George C. Edwards III studied 287 presidential legislative initiatives that he deemed to potentially significant and found that 41 percent became law). Since then, the White House has faced an uphill battle in convincing networks to interrupt programming. As a result, rather than hearing from the president directly, the American people often come to learn about his messages through the filter of journalists. Of course, the president lacks the ability to control the tone and content of such coverage. As the journalist Sebastian Mallaby has argued, “the bully pulpit has been drowned out by bullying pundits.”
On the relatively rare occasions when presidents have the opportunity to speak directly to the American people, many citizens simply tune him out. Fewer than 32 million Americans watched the 2015 State of the Union address. By way of comparison, 114.4 million Americans watched the Super Bowl last year. While the growth of the mass media has created more overall opportunities for presidents to communicate, it has also created more distractions and competition
The bully pulpit is simply not the powerful weapon that Roosevelt portrayed it to be. Obama’s—and other contemporary presidents’—use of the bully pulpit has actually been correlated with declining public support and an inability to achieve key goals. Roosevelt would be speechless.
Most striking in that statement is this line: “On the relatively rare occasions when presidents have the opportunity to speak directly to the American people, many citizens simply tune him out.” And that’s where Donald J. Trump has overturned the apple cart! Through his incessant Twitter usage, his creation of an “us/them” narrative about the mainstream media, and his pathological lying, Trump has blown the bully pulpit to bits! As John Cassidy notes in the July 20, 2017 New Yorker (online):
It is often said, and with ample reason, that much of what Donald Trump says isn’t worth a jot. As Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter, noted last year, “lying is second nature to him.” When he isn’t telling outright whoppers, he exaggerates things outrageously, and his utterances often bear little resemblance from one day to the next. On Tuesday, he said that Republicans should let Obamacare crash and burn. On Wednesday, he said that he wanted to see it replaced.
The overwhelming impression from the transcript (of Trump’s NY Times interview) is of a President who considers himself above the law, and who believes himself to be, through no fault of his own, besieged by internal and external enemies, particularly in the Justice Department and the F.B.I.
Trump’s unflagging base of Fox/Rush/InfoWars consumers, who believe they’ve been screwed by the Eastern elites and Washington “swamp” only read his Tweets. Sebastian Mallaby’s “bullying pundits” no longer carry weight with a huge swath of the population --- usurped by a toddler with a SmartPhone who speaks “directly” (if fraudulently) to his followers. David Leonhardt and Stuart A. Thompson have compiled a list of Trump’s Lies (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/23/opinion/trumps-lies.html) in the NY Times (updated daily), introduced as follows:
There is simply no precedent for an American president to spend so much time telling untruths. Every president has shaded the truth or told occasional whoppers. No other president — of either party — has behaved as Trump is behaving. He is trying to create an atmosphere in which reality is irrelevant.
This is our new “bully pulpit,” 2017 style. Simply peruse the Leonhardt/Thompson list to see, fully, how out-of-control this President’s lying is. Yet, having struck a responsive chord with angry whites, disaffected Republicans, and “never-Clinton” voters, Trump fashioned a coalition that delivered the Presidency to him. As we watch the “repeal and replace” HealthCare Bill die, see no InfraStructure or Tax Reform legislation on the horizon, and continue to go further down the Russian rabbit hole, Trump will continue to run out to “campaign style” rallies to buoy his ego while people like Scaramucci continue to kowtow to “the Boss.” Trump’s obsession with his own ego (and always being “right”) supersedes the serious threat of our electoral process being attacked. His “pulpit” is the Twitter feed and the price for his megalomania will be paid for years and years to come.