The Uniqueness of #45


No question that Donald Trump is unique as President of the United States. But let’s be sure we know precisely what is unique about him.

It’s not his home state or birth state. Seven other American presidents were born in the state of New York.

It’s not his pre-presidential career as a political outsider. If you define outsider as not having been elected to political office, two 20th-century American presidents fit that description—Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower.

You won’t find uniqueness in Donald Trump’s position as having to govern after a bitter and raucous presidential election campaign. You may have heard references to the elections of 1800 and 1828 as examples of harsh, even violent rhetoric in campaigning. Personally, I think 1912 is an excellent—and fitting—example of a divisive campaign that posed serious governing challenges to the winner.

The use of new communication technology isn’t unique to Donald Trump. Dwight Eisenhower stunned political professionals and campaign consultants in 1952 when he agreed to a large dose of television advertising in the run-up to the election. Many of the techniques in today’s TV ads are simply repeating what Eisenhower did in the formative years of television. For that matter, Franklin Roosevelt stunned observers with his reliance on new radio technology for speech-making.

Presidents have switched political parties, too. Ronald Reagan was a long-time Democrat who became a Republican. Abraham Lincoln was a Whig who became a Republican. Theodore Roosevelt changed his party after leaving the White House.

The rough-edgedness of Donald Trump was first expressed in Andrew Jackson. Both Jackson and Trump were maverick figures, albeit wealthy ones, who embodied a wilder sort of conduct in contrast to the dominant public behavior in existing political leaders. Opponents of Theodore Roosevelt blasted him for acting like an out-of-control juvenile while president.

Donald Trump is also not purely the first businessman to win the presidency. We’ve had presidents whose backgrounds included business. Recently, both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush had extensive business dealings. Harry Truman shares that experience with Trump, most especially in the category of business failures or closures. George Washington also had a very important set of experiences as a businessman with multiple enterprises. Washington and Trump have similarities in business—both of them were steeped in land-based projects and deals; some were successes and others disappointments. (As an aside, we’ll be exploring in TTP (The Trump Project) the implications of skill in real estate development as part of the basis of Trump’s presidential leadership.)

All right, all right. I won’t beat this to death. Point made. You need to look elsewhere to find Donald Trump’s true uniqueness. Two things pop out at me.

Donald Trump is the only American president thus far whose pre-White House career was so deeply soaked in celebrity, mass entertainment, and social media communication and, more tellingly, in the nexus of those three things. He is at ease on the digitized high-wire. We will see more of this in coming presidential elections and campaigns, regardless of party affiliation. If you don’t like it, too bad. They squawked about Eisenhower and TV in 1952 as well.

The power of this fact multiplies in combination—when you combine it with other factors. For example, it is Donald Trump’s celebrity/entertainment/twitter record in combination with his recent switch of political party affiliation that feels so new, so exciting, and so disburbing (depending on your perspective). It is President-Elect Trump’s lack of political office-holding in combination with his Andrew Jackson-esque leadership style that portends either wonderful or ominous things. And so on.

Remember, when you sense that Donald Trump has entered totally uncharted territory, look for the combination as a way to dissect what’s going on.

The second piece of Trump’s uniqueness is branding. The more I’ve thought of it, the more I’m convinced that branding is a concept we can locate in the 21st century. Sure, we’ve had people in the past with particular reputations, personas, and images. But the immersion in mass- and global-based entertainment and instantaneous transmission makes branding a thing unto itself in the 2000s.

Consider what I haven’t said here. I could easily have said that George Washington used branding more than two centuries ago. Paintings, sketches, busts, and more, Washington was seemingly everywhere in imagery.

Not like Donald Trump. Washington’s imagery was for a collective purpose—the establishment of a national identity. Trump’s branding is essentially Trump’s overall business product—it is for profit and not public cohesion. I don’t say that as criticism. It’s a fact.

So, to me, branding is unique to President-Elect Donald Trump.

We’ll find out which is more significant and defining—the things that the 45th president shares with some of the 44 predecessors or the things that are unique to the 45th president elected in 2016.

Action-Point: Donald Trump’s two uniquenesses will be visible in his Presidency. The key will be how they interplay with the continuities of a Trump Administration.