Many Republicans felt that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton made no attempt to be president of the whole nation — and many Democrats believed the same about George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. They were wrong. Those partisans were projecting their own antipathy towards one or another president onto those presidents.
It’s true that all presidents do sometimes talk directly to only part of the nation, and when they do that they are most likely to speak to their supporters. It’s also true that all presidents tend to have a better rapport with their supporters.
And yet every president in the modern era, and as far as I know every president in the history of the republic, has also attempted to speak to, with, and for the entire nation. In all the ways that Greg Sargent has documented for The Washington Post, Trump’s failure to even attempt to be president of the whole nation, and others that I’ve talked about, Trump just doesn’t go through the motions.
It’s possible to think of this as a skills-based failure of representation. The political scientist Richard Fenno talks about how politicians think of their constituencies in terms of concentric circles. The smallest is the “personal constituency” — the handful or so friends, family, and close allies who a politician turns to for advice and support on a very small-scale level. Next is the “primary constituency” or the strongest supporters — think not individuals, but large groups of voters who have demonstrated loyalty to the politician over time. Larger still is the “reelection constituency,” which includes all those who voted for the politician. And then there’s the “geographical constituency.” For a member of the House, that’s the entire district. For a president, it’s the entire nation.
Experienced politicians are experts at simultaneously representing all of these constituencies. They certainly pay more attention to their supporters than to the district as a whole; they pay more attention to their core supporters than to others who happened to vote for them. And how they think of the constituency as a whole, something that will vary with different politicians, will affect what they actually do and how they’ll actually talk when that’s their focus. So since (say) Barack Obama and George W. Bush probably had somewhat different ideas of the United States, they probably differed some in how they spoke and what they did when they were focused on the “geographical constituency.”
What’s different about Trump — what makes him as far different from all other presidents — is that he very rarely expresses himself in terms of the whole nation. Indeed, he repeatedly seems focused on just his strongest supporters or only his personal confidants, or even just himself, when a normal politician would be shifting to his or her “geographical constituency” voice. Trump, for all intents and purposes, simply doesn’t have that voice or even a “reelection constituency” voice. He’ll occasionally slip into some approximation of one when he’s scripted and sticks to the script, but even then it sounds hollow because his speechwriters don’t have anything to work from.
Again: All presidents, and all politicians, are at times speaking to and acting on behalf of their strongest supporters. That’s not a bad thing; that’s how representation is supposed to work. Even so, it can sound alienating and even hostile when any president is plainly speaking to others, and not to us — so much so that we can then find it difficult to hear the times that he’s speaking to the entire nation. (And to be sure: partisan media outlets can magnify this effect so we seem even more abandoned by any opposite party president then we otherwise would).
The more skilled a politician is, the more she will navigate through this by finding words that appeal to multiple constituencies at once. Moreover, the more skilled a politician is, the more he will actually act in ways that respond to multiple constituencies.
Presidents, in a sense, have it easier than legislators: Not only do they have governing responsibilities that lend themselves to acting for the entire nation, but they have an entire role as head of state that gives them an opportunity to speak to the “geographical constiuency.” That Trump has mostly squandered these opportunities is an astonishing failure.
Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics