Sarada Peri is a Visiting Global Fellow at the Ryerson Leadership Lab. She was a special assistant and senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama.
"This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."
Thus, with either a promise or a threat, did Donald J. Trump launch his presidency in what may go down as the worst inaugural address in modern history. It was a far cry from Franklin Roosevelt's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," or John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you." Even Abraham Lincoln, speaking in the midst of actual American carnage, urged what was left of a nation torn apart by civil war to carry on "with malice toward none, with charity for all."
Now, nearly 11 months after Mr. Trump entered the White House, we are left wondering whether he has irrevocably altered the nature of presidential communication and, by extension, the presidency.
As the head of government and head of state, American presidents have always been tasked with offering both a policy agenda and an aspirational vision for the country. But over the past century, as the executive consolidated power, presidential communication gained outsized significance (and perhaps a tinge of romanticism, thanks to The West Wing).
It was our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt – known for his impassioned (and lengthy) speeches – who was said to have first coined the term "bully pulpit." Mr. Roosevelt's use of the word "bully" might be unfamiliar to modern audiences – he meant "awesome" or "first rate." The president, to Mr. Roosevelt's delight, had an enormously powerful platform from which to influence the country and the world with his words.
President Barack Obama used his widely acknowledged oratorical gifts to steadily advance an argument, advocate for his policy priorities, offer a vision for the nation and, at crucial times, unify Americans with the story of who we are, and who we aspire to be. His speechwriters – I was one of them – understood that he thought deeply about how to use his presidential platform to speak to all Americans. He knew that his words mattered.
After Mr. Trump's unlikely election, nobody doubted his ability to generate wall-to-wall media coverage with his brand of racist, pseudo-populism. It was the car wreck from which we couldn't avert our eyes. But the willfully naive thought he might change his ways after taking the oath of office, perhaps because the mythology of presidential communication fed the assumption that discipline and gravitas came with the office, such as Air Force One or the nuclear codes.
They were disappointed. As he did in the campaign, Mr. Trump still uses speeches to stoke fear and settle scores. He uses Twitter to target political opponents who lost to him, and black athletes who dare to exercise their right to peacefully protest. He whines about the media's treatment of him, and throws a tantrum at every revelation about Russia's meddling in our election. His forays into policy discussions are blindingly disjointed.
Presidents have historically used their positions to try to bring people together. Mr. Trump jumps into the fray specifically to pull us apart. He's not a leader; he's a spoiler.
And, from his perspective, why not? Shooting from the hip with racist, sexist, xenophobic and just plain mean commentary had, during the campaign, earned him the honorific of "authentic," and an alarmingly unfettered path to the presidency. What incentive does he have to change?
The fear, now, is that the rest of us don't have an incentive to change, either. We wonder if future Americans will accept a leader who does not share his every thought via early morning Tweet storms. We once valued thoughtful, measured speeches, and presidents who respected Americans enough to weigh their words with care. Will voters henceforth find such restraint quaint and inauthentic?
There are encouraging signs of a backlash to Mr. Trump's style of communicating. An August poll found that 69 per cent of Americans – and 54 per cent of Republicans – thought he should stop using his personal Twitter account. Seventy per cent of Americans think his belligerent rhetoric on North Korea is unhelpful. This surely contributes to the belief among the majority of Americans that he is "not fit to be President."
Presidents can use their words to mobilize action. On this count, Mr. Trump has failed. His successes, as such – banning visitors from certain Muslim countries, reversing protections for young undocumented immigrants, reverting to ineffective and racist criminal-justice practices, pulling out of the Paris agreement, hollowing out the State Department, dismantling regulations – have been unilateral and aimed squarely at erasing the presidency of Barack Obama.
Rather than clarify and make the case for legislative priorities, he merely reveals his ignorance of their details. Despite majorities in the House and Senate, Mr. Trump failed to repeal Obamacare, as he promised to do. His talk of an infrastructure plan has amounted to nothing. And if the Republican scam to cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy passes, it will be because they rammed through their hastily scrawled travesty in the dead of night, away from the prying eyes of a disapproving public.
But Teddy Roosevelt was talking about more than influencing policy or even politics. He was illuminating a president's power to shape the nation's ethical framework – his power, in effect, to moralize. "I suppose my critics will call that preaching," he said, "but I have got such a bully pulpit."
Mr. Trump offers no stable political affiliation, no hopeful vision for America, no compelling, or even coherent, agenda. His alleged economic populism is belied by his plutocratic Administration's dedication to favouring the rich at the expense of the middle-class. The racist nostalgia of Make America Great Again was always about undoing decades, perhaps centuries, of making a more perfect union. No, the sole consistent theme one can make out from the staccato fury of his tweets and the roiling resentment of his remarks, is white nationalism. And in the end, this may be all that matters.
He has invited what was once a fringe ideology into the White House, giving overt racism the presidential seal of approval. When, as signs indicate, this strain comes to dominate a Republican party that has been appropriated by Trump, then his Twitter feed will be seen as its urtext.
If the rest of us – including our press – allow him to normalize white nationalism, then he will have succeeded in distorting our sense of self, and poisoning the essence of who we are. Should Mr. Trump's morals become America's morals, then the bully will indeed have vanquished the nation from his pulpit.