The ambiguous phrase is making the rounds again this week after President Trump sent out a flurry of tweets directed at a pair of MSNBC hosts who, for months, had been insulting him on their morning cable news show.
Liberals, Never-Trumpers and a vast majority of the press remain put out by Trump’s tendency to respond in-kind to his critics. In their opinion, the president is acting in a manner unbecoming of his office.
But how does one determine if a president is not acting “presidential?” Oxford English Dictionary defines presidential as “having a bearing or demeanour [sic] befitting a president; dignified and confident.”
It appears there are some who are stuck on the “dignified” aspect of Trump’s presidency, as no one in their right mind would dare question the man’s confidence. But then, that raises the question: who establishes the standard of dignity a president should manifest, and can any person measure up to such a standard?
“There is no way any human could live up to the inflated state of dignity inherent in the presidency,” Sirius XM radio host Julie Mason, who covered the Bush White House for the Houston Chronicle, told The Hill in 2014. “They are all ridiculous at some point, just by being normal.”
Indeed, other presidents have also, at one time or another, been described as acting less than presidential.
Shortly after the 1860 presidential election, it’s been recorded that Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s wife, overheard gentlemen discussing her husband’s perceived deficiencies in the dining room of New York City’s Metropolitan Hotel.
“Could he, with any honor, fill the Presidential Chair? Would his western gaucherie disgrace the Nation?” the men asked aloud, unaware of Mary’s presence.
Ronald Reagan’s background and personality were also later called into question.
In its Feb. 1976 issue, Harper’s Magazine, the second-oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the U.S., referred to Reagan as Ronald Duck, “the Candidate from Disneyland,” labeling him “Nixon without the savvy or self pity. . . That he should be regarded as a serious candidate for President is a shame and embarrassment.”
The younger Bush was not immune to criticism, either.
In 2004, Patti Wood, an Atlanta-based body language expert, told BBC News that President George W. Bush’s behavior during the first presidential debate was “not presidential.”
“In reaction shots, Bush was arrogant, smirked and shook his head and looked disgusted in a childish way,” Wood said. “This indicates immaturity — which is not presidential. He should have been more in control.”
Still, the number of instances in which President Trump has been described as “unpresidential” is truly unprecedented.
While Trump has certainly added fuel to the fire with his brazen personality, shouldn’t the media also bear responsibility for attempting to provoke him with their incessant personal insults and purposeful dishonest news coverage?
Take, for instance, The Atlantic: the progressive magazine created an online time capsule in May 2016 that was set up to document all of Trump’s perceived blunders and missteps during the general election. Its self-appointed purpose was to “catalogue [sic] some of the things Donald Trump says and does that no real president would do.”
Sound objective? If you thought yes, you’d be wrong.
“Is this implicitly anti-Trump? No, it’s explicitly so,” the time capsule’s description goes on to read. “And so, the chronicle begins: things Donald Trump has said or done that would be highly undesirable from an actual president. The running tally is meant to document his outlier status as he moves toward the general election.”
Although the time capsule experiment came to a crashing halt when Trump was elected president, the individual responsible for updating it — James Fallow, a former chief speechwriter for President Carter — added this note to his final submission on Nov. 20, 2016: “The pace and audacity of Donald Trump’s departures from norms, standards, and respect-for-office indeed merit an ongoing chronicle…Someone should chronicle these things, but not me, at least not single-handed.”
The fact remains, most of Trump’s supporters get a kick out of his tweets — even as many of his critics are left in a tizzy over them.
This past week was no exception.
On Thursday, Jeb Bush — Trump’s former opponent for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination and President George W. Bush’s brother — summed up his opinion of Trump’s tweets in three words: “Inappropriate. Undignified. Unpresidential.” (Really, Jeb? Not even an exclamation point?)
Inappropriate. Undignified. Unpresidential. https://t.co/6iZFIfA5Hn
— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) June 29, 2017
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), long known for being the face of the Never-Trump movement, also voiced moral outrage at Trump’s tweeting. Ironically, he took to Trump’s preferred medium to do so.
Please just stop. This isn't normal and it's beneath the dignity of your office.
— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) June 29, 2017
The absurdity of it all is that candidate Trump displayed this same bombastic attitude on the campaign trail. However, rather than punishing him for, in his words, “counter-punching” — the American people elected him president.
In one of the highest-profile interviews last summer, then-candidate Trump discussed his counter-punching strategy with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.
Donald Trump: I'm a counter-puncher https://t.co/k7Xlxkl3bz
— Grandstand News (@grandstandnews) July 3, 2017
President Trump is delivering on his major campaign promises — Supreme Court, immigration, ISIS, jobs and the economy — yet many of his most vocal detractors, from all sides of the political spectrum, are blind to these accomplishments. In their minds, his use of social media to communicate with his more than 100 million followers is a grave embarrassment that far outweighs any good he might do as president.
Like Reagan, Trump is the vehicle through which millions of Americans are voicing their angst and disappointment with a government that they feel has abandoned them.
As Elizabeth Drew of The New Yorker observed in 1976, Reagan’s appeal had to do “not with competence at governing but with the emotion he evokes.” As she put it, “Reagan lets people get out their anger and frustration, their feeling of being misunderstood and mishandled by those who have run our government, their impatience with taxes and with the poor and the weak, their impulse to deal with the world’s troublemakers by employing the stratagem of a punch in the nose.”
And the same applies to our current president: more than 62 million Americans sent Donald Trump to Washington to deliver a punch in the nose.
Perhaps that’s why Trump’s latest tweet — an old clip of him fake wrestling someone with the CNN logo superimposed on their head — is now his most “liked” tweet of all-time. Because nothing says a “punch in the nose” more than the president bodyslamming fake news, right?
You may not like him or agree with him. You may not understand his methods. You may think he acts juvenile and “unpresidential” at times. However, you might as well get used to it — Trump’s not going anywhere.
In the meantime, if you are still determined to let him know that you don’t think he’s acting presidential, you can always tweet him @realDonaldTrump or send your hate mail to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Expect a response.