Dr. Max J. Skidmore is a Curator’s Professor of Political Science at UMKC. He is an expert on the American presidency, having studied every administration in the country’s history. His other areas of expertise include political ideologies, American political thought and social security policies. UNews sat down with Dr. Skidmore to learn more about Mr. Trump’s approach to the highest office in the land.
Q: Today, I want to talk about the… unprecedented role of social media in our country’s current political discourse, specifically in regards to President Trump. What are your personal thoughts on the role of social media — not just during the recent election — but now that Trump is in office, in terms of his presidency as well?
A: Well, there’s no question that social media [sites] are the new method of communication. They’re extremely useful. They have their own limitations, as with sound bites on television. On the other hand, they are enormously flexible and versatile. That can actually be a drawback in some respects because they’re so easily available, and it’s so tempting to resort to particular behaviors, especially if you have impulse control issues such as the president does. The political system is adapting as it has done to every new approach…. When George Washington was president he was an austere figure, charismatic and enormously popular and so forth. He was perceived almost to be a demi god. Everything he did established a precedent, being the first. And he had to draw a fine line between being too reserved and setting himself apart from the people or being too accessible. He learned very quickly he had to keep his door closed except for certain times. He had to act in a way that provided the people with sufficient symbolic presence, that they would have respect for the office, and yet so they could feel that it was their office in many ways.
Q: Do you think that, so far, Trump has followed that precedent? He tweets an average of, I believe it is twelve times a day, which is pretty constant.
A: It’s unprecedented, and in many ways, it’s disturbing because I’m sure he views it and his supporters view it as an attempt on his part to keep in touch with his supporters. But it’s also this stream of consciousness kind of revelation of what’s going on. Anything that pops into his mind pops out of his fingers and it’s not a reassuring trend. You don’t tell secrets to someone you know is a gossip. Unless he’s thoroughly consistent and careful — which Mr. Trump doesn’t give evidence that he is — whatever thought occurs to him at the moment or whatever reaction he has, particularly an emotional reaction, becomes public.
Q: When it comes to this phenomenon of Trump’s ever-present online stream of consciousness, could it be just a 21st century, “fireside chat” type of thing, or is it more insidious?
A: Yes and no. It does provide immediacy in a way that previous media didn’t. But it also has a complete lack of discipline. And the fact that these tweets are circumscribed by 140 character limit, means that inevitably it’s going to be very shallow. You can’t deal with anything in depth. It makes a sound bite seem expansive. Roosevelt used the fireside chat and the medium of radio extremely effectively…. John Kennedy made great use of television. In the first presidential debate ever, Kennedy and Nixon, the myth has arisen that people who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon had won and people who watched it on television thought Kennedy had won.
Q: Do you think having a sense of an online presence and proficiency with social media is now something that needs to be included with that?
A: Yes. Although in a sense that is a more restrictive thing because all that requires is a small degree of verbal facility. You don’t have to have any real talent to excel on Twitter. The interesting thing about the question of television and now the question of social media and so forth is that it does require things of candidates that are not particularly relevant to good governing. The qualities necessary to get the nomination are not the qualities necessary to perform well in office….
Q: That makes me think back to this election. That was one of the core issues, those artificial expectations, for Clinton. She was certainly qualified —
A: Certainly. In Hillary Clinton’s case, as Obama himself said, neither he nor Bill Clinton nor anyone else who first ran for the presidency, ever, was as well qualified as she was… This election was very bizarre.
Q: I’d have to agree…. I’d like to go back and dig a little deeper… [about] people feeling “disturbed” regarding President Trump’s behavior online. What are the actual implications? Why isn’t it just harmlessly unpresidential?
A: A lot of it is harmless. But it also reflects a mindset. He is obsessed with the size of crowds, for example. Bigness counts. He wanted to win ‘“bigly.” It’s a reaction you’d expect from a kindergartner. You know, “I’m bigger than you are, and if someone is bigger than me, I have to find a way to explain it.” To think that the person with access to nuclear codes and to the beginnings of war, up to and including nuclear war, is so preoccupied with the trivial. He has no sense of proportion.
You know, we’ve had very poor presidents in the past…. But we’ve never had a president who thought more of his own status and his own reputation than he did the country. Mr. Trump may not be that preoccupied with his own person, but he certainly gives that impression…. I would be surprised if Trump hasn’t drawn up an enemies list the way Nixon did. It led to personal tragedy for Nixon. But he was still enough of a statesman and enough of a patriot that he was concerned about the country and the quality of programs and the efficiency of government. I have yet to see Mr. Trump express those selfless sentiments.
Could you imagine, going back to 1960, when John Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”? That was a sentiment that inspired people. You have an obligation to the culture, to the country, to the world. When Hubert Humphrey talked about the politics of joy, he was laughed out of the room, but when Ronald Reagan said the same thing, “It’s morning in America,” people agreed. Reagan had the advantage of having trained as an actor. And he saw the presidency as the greatest role he’d ever play. He brought those talents to the job. But Donald Trump has had the television experience with reality television. That’s so immediate to people today that it enabled him to annihilate the Republican challengers, all 500 of them.
Q: I really like what you said about Reagan viewing the presidency as his greatest role. For Trump, do you think that in some ways this has become the ultimate reality gig for him?
A: I do. I really do. And on that show, his whole shtick was, “I’m the boss in charge — ”
Q & A: (in unison) “You’re fired!”
A: And he’s bringing those same tendencies to the presidency. His inaugural address is unique. It was brief, but it’s the only one — in history — in which there was no emphasis on national unity, on patriotism, on the good of the country. It was only directed to his base. “You elected me and I’m the only one who can do these things for you. I can do things that no one else can do.” There was no humility. No sense of, as Jefferson said, “We are all federalists, and we are all republicans.”
Q: I have one final question before we wrap this up. This is a debate that I have heard a lot around campus since the semester started. There’s a lot of comparisons being made between Trump and what he’s doing and Hitler, the animosity towards media, the racially charged rhetoric. Do you think that his approach to the presidency and his approach to the media is really that strategic, or do you think it’s genuine?
A: I may be wrong — I don’t think it’s a cynical ploy. I think it’s his personality, and he is who he is. I don’t think he himself is even necessarily a racist. But he’s certainly comfortable with people who are, and the bottom line is not all that different. It’s politically incorrect to refer to Hitler in American politics, “Oh, you can’t compare people to Hitler,” and so forth. Maybe Mussolini would be better. Regardless, it’s not just Trump. Trump isn’t responsible for all of this.
There has been a tendency for over thirty years to go in this direction. Political Science as a discipline has not done anything to inform people or to warn people because political scientists tend to be so careful about being scientific and objective and not taking a position on anything… The one thing they have not done and should have done, because it’s been pretty obvious for a long time, is [address] the vulnerability of the American political system… We have a political system in which someone such as Trump, such as Jesse Jackson, such as Steve Forbes, and people from outside can jump in and make major splash. Or in Trump’s case, actually win the nomination and the presidency.