Curious Minds Want to Know
In her blog of yesterday, the historian Heather Cox Richardson asked a question that has been on the minds of many.
” . . . why Trump seems so desperate to stay in a job he clearly has no interest in doing.”
You may remember during the 2016 campaign the many commentators who said that Trump didn’t really want the job, that he was just running for the publicity or as a kind of stunt.
So we end as he began. “Why is he so desperate to stay in a job he clearly has no interest in doing?”
In his excellent book, A Time to Build, Yuval Levin provides the answer. Levin writes against the backdrop of a precipitous decline of trust in institutions in American life.
Levin’s contention is that there has been transformation, across the board, of our institutions “from mold to platform.” What does that mean? Here’s Levin: “A person with a role defined by a position in a formative institution — an elementary school vice-principal, a platoon commander, a Girl Scout — is playing that part, pouring himself or herself into it, and so taking its shape.” (Or you might call it, “doing your job.”)
“By contrast, the more performative approach to institutions we increasingly see involves people with an institutional position using it as means of being seen and heard in the larger society . . . Thus we find that many holders of elected office now spend much of their time participating in the cultural theater of our politics — often complaining dramatically about the corruption of the very institutions in which they hold positions — more than playing the role the system assigns to them.” (italics mine)
Hence, from mold to platform. Why is Trump desperately clinging to the Presidency when he shows so little interest in doing the actual job? Because it is a “platform,” his instrument for putting himself at the center of national consciousness and attention. The Presidency is not, for him, a job with certain responsibilities and obligations that come framed by institutional norms. It is his platform for gaining attention and for participating in our “all consuming, wall-to-wall culture war.”
This is of course, not limited to Trump. Increasingly members of Congress approach that position not by fitting themselves to the mold of a historic legislative institution and role. Being a member of Congress means having a platform for performative participation in the culture war.
This shift from mold to platform can be witnessed all across our culture and all of its institutions, including journalism. Describing what has become a sharp generational tension at the New York Times, a veteran of the paper said, “I think a lot of this younger generation were brought up to believe that it’s very important that their voices be heard, and so I think it’s a bit harder to fit into an institution where it’s less than democratic in some ways. One generation came of age where they entered an esteemed institution and tried to find a way to fit into it, and this other generation has an expectation that the institution will change to accommodate them. That’s the essence of the tension.” It’s not that one is wholly right and the other wholly wrong, there’s some merit in both perspectives.
While Trump is an egregious example of disregard for the formative element of institutions and using them as a performative platform for self-aggrandizement, this tendency transcends left and right, liberal and conservative. The idea that “I have to be me,” and “I have to make my voice heard,” is a long-standing trope in liberal culture where such an ethos is equated with “authenticity,” while “playing the role the system [family, community, institution] assigns” (see above) is seen as “inauthentic.” You might call “catechesis” according to Disney.
Note how often Trump supporters say what they like about him is that he is “real,” “he says what he thinks.”
Levin’s contention is that, paradoxically, this elevating of the individual above institutional norms, however much it may be praised in the name of “authenticity” has resulted in a drastic decline in trust in our institutions, which increasingly don’t fulfill their mission or get the essential work done because people are busy promoting themselves. More on this in future blogs.
For now, note that the straw that broke the camel’s back with regard to Trump was his failure to honor the institutional norm of accepting the results of an election and playing his part to insure the peaceful transfer of power. Such expectations are an example of the institution as mold. He doesn’t get it. The Presidency is his platform, one to which he feels as entitled as he does to his Twitter account.