WASHINGTON — Calvin Coolidge, known by some as “Silent Cal” during his time in the White House, used his autobiography to live up to his nickname. “The words of a president,” he wrote in 1929 after leaving office, “have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.”
The world is very different now. Communication is instantaneous. Americans — even a president — are often measured by the quantity and volume of what is now called their “content.” Since he took office in 2017 (and for many years before that), Donald Trump has been a different kind of president when it comes to communication — a more-is-better kind of guy.
You can adore Trump or despise him. But from late-night tweet storms to oft-repeated untruths to provocative statements about everything from the kneeling of pro football players to canned beans to buying Greenland, there’s one thing it has been almost impossible to do with the president of the United States these past four years: ignore him.
“No one can get away from it. It’s never happened before. I’ve always cared about the president, but it’s never been like this,” says Syd Straw, an entertainer and artist who lives in the Vermont woods. “Even people who like him feel that way, I think.”
Now, as another administration prepares to take the reins of American power, have the Trump years forever changed the place that the presidency occupies in American life and Americans’ lives? Has Calvin Coolidge’s statement become woefully outdated in the era of the ever-present presidency, or is it an idea whose time has returned, as voiced by a sign on the fence at Lafayette Square near the White House last week: “Enough!”
The presidency was devised as a combination of two things — a big-time leader and a regular person from our ranks. And the American people have always wanted to interact with it, or at least feel they are. In the 1800s, they actually were: Andrew Jackson’s inauguration featured an open house in which people wandered in and out of the White House at will. Access in varying degrees continued for a half century until security concerns ended it.
The TV-friendly Kennedy administration elevated personality to a height nearly on par with competence. And the stature of the office — perched high upon a metaphorical hill, of the people but distant from them — has competed ever since with the desire to bring it down to Earth. Thus did Bill Clinton answer the famous 1994 question on MTV — “Boxers or briefs?” — and George W. Bush gain stature as the candidate you’d “want to sit down and have a beer with.”
But none of those leaders was communicating with the American public directly and injecting fresh material on multiple topics into the national conversation multiple times a day. There is simply no precedent for Donald Trump, who — like so many among us — has holed up in his bedroom late at night with his phone and tweeted about things that irritated him. Never before have 280 characters from the planet’s most powerful person seemed nearer. Perhaps they never will again.
Former President Barack Obama even deployed the Trump omnipresence as a talking point while stumping for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
“Joe and Kamala, when they are in office … you’re not going to have to think about them every single day,” Obama told a drive-in rally in Orlando, Florida, in late October. “It just won’t be so exhausting. You’ll be able to go about your lives.”
Many Trump supporters, who beg to differ, have loved this ubiquity. To them, it’s transparency: He has brought to the presidency a combination of accessibility and pugnaciousness that floods multiple channels — and is useful even when it’s draining, which it sometimes is even for them. “Even Trump’s supporters are getting tired of his daily drama,” the conservative National Review said in a headline last year.
Put simply, it’s another data point in a saga of national exhaustion and media overload — particularly in the can’t-get-away-from-it era of the coronavirus pandemic.
“If we are burned out with the presidency, how do we go forward in terms of how we consume media?” wonders Apryl Alexander, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver who studies how people and communities meet challenges. “I have a text message from friends the minute I wake up about something (Trump) said. I think Biden and his camp are going to have to navigate this.”
In many ways, it transcends Trump. The primacy of the presidency is so deeply embedded in American culture that it’s often hard to look away when the occupant is saying, “Look at me.”
Though the U.S. government has three branches, the chief executive has come to embody the national psyche, the national mood, the national character. It’s hard to imbue a legislative body or a court with the personality of a nation. The president, though, is expected to channel all of that — and so, in a society weaned on heroes and outsized figures, commandeers the attention.
“We don’t look at the office; we look at the person. And Donald Trump has been the ultimate personality,” says Anthony DiMaggio, a political scientist at Lehigh University who teaches media politics and propaganda. “It’s not the greatest way to have a nuanced understanding of our political system. But it’s easy.”
Who knows how a President Joe Biden will communicate? It’s probably safe to say that his lack of history as a reality-show staple and a frequently provocative tweeter may limit how much national, moment-to-moment bandwidth he will pursue.
And Trump? When he and the presidency become separate entities, he’ll continue to occupy what sociologists call “the attention space.” He’ll still have a lot to say, and many places to say it, and many people who want to hear it. But unlike now, when he holds the highest office in the land, more Americans will feel they can shut it off.
“What he says may continue to be newsworthy for quite a long time,” says Caroline Lee, an associate professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania who specializes in the sociology of politics and culture. “But the question is, at some point he will die, and who takes over his attention space at that point? Could anybody command that style of attention or that amount of attention? It’s hard to imagine somebody stepping into that role.”
Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted