What Does it Mean to 'Look Presidential'?

Trump said it was important to look 'presidential,' but in victory, he couldn't master it

Trump barely smiled during his victory speech and kept his eyes fixed on his screens. Picture / Jabin Botsford for Washington Post

Donald Trump, the president-elect, walked to the stage at his victory party in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. He stood against a backdrop of precisely aligned American flags and took his place behind a lectern, which he gripped on either side with his hands.

America's most bombastic showman of the century was ready to take his bow.

Trump's suit was black and better-fitting than usual. His tie was bright red and his shirt, with its French cuffs, was white. A single Old Glory pin was attached to his jacket's left lapel. His picture-perfect family trailed him in patriotic, color-coordinated attire: His daughters in pale blue, his sons in dark suits, a daughter-in-law in red and his wife, Melania, in a flowing white jumpsuit that was just glamorous enough to be authentically her but not so ostentatious as to cause one to stare. It had all the trappings of a perfectly presidential tableau, the kind that the country has come to expect in the age of media optics. It was familiar.

Familiarity was necessary because nothing else for the past year had been. Not the campaign or the candidate. The polls had been wrong; a nation was stunned. The global community was horrified. This postelection ritual - a humbled winner surrounded by family acknowledging that an opponent has conceded and then offering a few admiring remarks about a hard-fought contest - is meant to serve as a balm. Do not worry, is the message. The republic will hold.

Will it? This time the ritual has become a question.

READ: What It's Like Covering the US Election

When Trump opened his mouth to speak, he did not shout, his preferred style of delivery over the past year. Instead, he fixed his eyes on his teleprompters and began to read in a calm rasp.

The showman was playing a different role. He had all the costuming and the props. The script was set.

But as he spoke, Trump's head was tilted down slightly, as if his screens were set a tad too low. He pivoted awkwardly from side to side - a phrase from one screen, the next paragraph from the other. When his remarks were meant to be warm and engaging, his gaze remained fixed on the teleprompters.

Rarely did he look into the audience at those who were cheering him. Even more rarely did he look directly into the cameras in any attempt to connect with the viewers at home - especially those who were not part of his base, who were outraged and disgusted not just by his campaign, but by the man himself.

He didn't smile. Smile, Trump! You won! That's what the pundits demanded of Hillary Clinton during the primary.

This fall, Trump said of his opponent: "I just don't think she has a presidential look, and you need a presidential look." No, Clinton did not look like all the men - and only men - who have governed from the Oval Office. Instead, she made the definition of the "presidential look" richer, more vibrant and more expansive for herself and some 58.7 million voters in this election.

In a simplistic way, it was about a pantsuit: the color white, in particular, harking back to the uniform of suffragettes, the silhouette a metaphor for power. But in the evolution from political camouflage to cliche to a talking point of empowerment and progress, the Clinton pantsuit broadened and transformed the culture's vision of a commander in chief.

READ: Hillary Clinton's Style Evolution

When, for the second time, an emotional Clinton stood at a lectern in front of disappointed supporters to set aside her presidential ambitions and argue for the unity of the country, she wore a charcoal gray Ralph Lauren pantsuit with contrasting purple lapels. (Go ahead and glean a message: Red and blue combine to make purple.) And she looked extraordinarily presidential in her defeat.

But what does "presidential" look like for the winner after a campaign in which the candidate was cloaked in vitriol and hate, misogyny and racism? Is it that same man in a suit standing in front of a row of American flags speaking at low volume? No, that's just empty stagecraft. And as soon as Trump began speaking, so wooden and flat, it was as if the entire set dissolved. It was all just a trompe l'oeil effect.

Trump was right that looking presidential is important. It is not superficial and it shouldn't be brushed aside. Visual cues are necessary and reassuring to the transition of power because they are an outward manifestation of a candidate's internal transformation - a sign that the full moral weight of the office is clear.

In past years, conveying that message has been a relatively easy visual trick for the winning candidate. Get a haircut, find a good tailor, grab a flag pin. Stand up straight and look the television audience in the eye while speaking words of grace and comity. But not this time. The usual trappings were not enough.

There was little that was persuasive in Trump's low-decibel speech, his olive-branch message or his gosh-that-campaign-was-hard humility. With this election, Trump devalued the importance of retail politics, and he proved the polls and the critics wrong. Against the odds, he showed he could win with a temperament rooted in petulance and pettiness. He showed he could win with a closet full of ill-fitting suits.

But even in his victory, he did not redefine what it means to look like the president. And he certainly didn't change what it means to be one.

- The Washington Post

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