Why a less-is-more approach might be best for the President.
Whatever your opinion of him, Donald Trump is undeniably one of the most polarizing figures in American history, let alone American politics.
For almost two years now, the visage of Trump has loomed large over our national culture. It is no longer enough to be a casual observer of politics. Relentless, breathless media coverage drives home the narrative that every American must choose a side: either our current president is an evil to be fought against or a good to be fought for. The lead news story every morning must now, as if by immutable law, relate to the paragon of virtue and/or vulgarity that is Donald J. Trump.
Still, the public cloud of controversy hanging around Trump rarely touches on his administration’s policy goals or efforts at governance. More often than not, news about Trump revolves around what Trump says, not what Trump does.
Trump most frequently makes himself heard through Twitter and has used that platform to shoot himself in the foot repeatedly ever since he descended Trump Tower’s gilded escalator to run for President. Whether it’s announcing a ban on transgender soldiers without consulting the Pentagon, spreading a video of himself fake-punching CNN, attacking cable news hosts, sounding off at London’s mayor, or undercutting his own legal defense team—all of which he’s done in the last three months alone—Trump seems determined to use Twitter in a way that attracts the wrong kind of attention.
Even when not tweeting, though, Trump says things that get him in trouble. He gives interviews expressing profound dissatisfaction with members of his own Cabinet; he abruptly ends interviews when pressed on his own claims about President Obama. And then there was his schizophrenic response to the recent violence in Charlottesville. After several days without a statement, Trump equivocated about who started the violence, then clarified his statement by condemning racism, then reversed his clarification and doubled down on his earlier equivocation the very next day.
To give an even more recent example, this past week, Trump struck a measured tone when announcing a change in Afghanistan military policy. But just one night later, he reiterated his Charlottesville comments and implied a coming pardon for controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a rally in Phoenix. As ever, the media flew into paroxysms of praise and blame over these two rhetorical displays.
Perhaps our news sources simply need to take some of Trump’s statements less literally and more as off-the-cuff, approximated reactions—like an actor performing improv theater. But they’re unlikely to do so. Taking the President seriously no matter the context leads to articles that generate clicks and videos that generate views. Moreover, Trump constantly needles the media about “fake news,” provoking them into firing back. It’s hopeless to wait for the media to develop thicker skin.
Yet Trump retains the power to refocus media attention on his administration’s policies, rather than his own rhetoric. The solution is simple: Trump should stop speaking, or at the very least speak less.
Trump is understandably reluctant to accept this solution. He probably believes that speaking less would lead to a loss of enthusiasm from his base, or constitute an admission of defeat to the “fake news” he dislikes so much—and Trump doesn’t admit defeat easily, if at all. He also seems to get genuine pleasure and validation from speaking directly to his followers.
Despite his reticence, the President should know that talking less works. One of Trump’s predecessors embraced this strategy and was wildly successful: Calvin Coolidge, often nicknamed “Silent Cal.”
As Vice President under Warren Harding, Coolidge gained a reputation as a man of few words. Legend has it that an old woman sitting by him at a state dinner once told him that she had a bet with a friend that she could get more than two words out of him that evening. Coolidge replied: “You lose.” Coolidge maintained this demeanor intentionally throughout his later years as president. While the world whirled around him, Coolidge often waited for the opportune moment to act.
In keeping with his deliberate demeanor, Coolidge embraced hands-off economic policy aimed at deregulation that led to national prosperity in the Roaring Twenties. His reserved nature made him so popular with his base that when he announced his intention not to run for reelection; the Republicans nearly nominated him anyway.
President Trump may think that in this age of sound bites and social media noise, he needs to be noisy too, but this approach continually backfires on him, and Coolidge’s example demonstrates that saying little may be the better strategy.
If Trump is still unsure whether the Coolidge strategy would work for him, he should start small. Most of the media furor over his presidency centers around his tweets, so perhaps he should spend less time on Twitter, allowing the official Presidential account manned by his communications staff to serve as his voice most of the time.
In sum, if the President wants to really baffle the media and his opponents, he should follow Silent Cal’s example and give them nothing to talk about. Trump would be free to execute his policy agenda, as he says he wants to, with little self-caused distraction. Deprived of the chance to freak out over everything Trump says, America would finally be able to focus on literally anything else.
Connor Mighell is a third-year law student at The University of Alabama School of Law with an undergraduate degree in Political Philosophy from Baylor University. He is a contributor at Merion West and the curator of “Five in a Flash,” a weekday newsletter. His work has been featured at The Federalist, SB Nation, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Hill, The Dallas Morning News, and The New Americana. He may be found on Twitter at @cmigbear.