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The Perils of Electing a Celebrity-in-Chief

Presidential historian Barbara Perry takes stock of Donald Trump, and assesses the long-term damage he is likely creating.
President Donald Trump applauds the crowd of supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center as he takes the stage during a rally on August 22nd, 2017, in Phoenix, Arizona.

President Donald Trump applauds the crowd of supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center as he takes the stage during a rally on August 22nd, 2017, in Phoenix, Arizona.

The president of the United States has two roles: head of state, and head of government. The person who occupies the Oval Office is expected to play a ceremonial role, as well as to competently run the federal government.

As a presidential historian, Barbara Perry is acutely aware that some have been more successful at one of those elements than the other. But in her view, the current chief executive has managed to utterly fail at both. And that, she argues, will have long-term consequences.

"Donald Trump is perpetrating damage on the institution of the presidency," she says. "I don't know whether the institution can recover from it."

Perry is director of presidential studies at the Miller Center of the University of Virginia—the campus that was the scene of that torch-lit march by white supremacists, which was followed by violent clashes and three deaths. (She was out of town when it took place.)

She has exhaustively researched the administration of John F. Kennedy—another president who, she noted, "had a right-wing, white supremacist faction of his own party." Needless to say, his approach to this group was a bit different from President Trump's.

"Kennedy," she noted dryly, "didn't go out and pump them up."

The political scientist, author, and former Supreme Court fellow spoke with Pacific Standard on Tuesday morning, just after Trump's campaign-style rally in Phoenix. She addressed his mental health and inability to govern, and told a story about the current climate in Charlottesville, where she lives.


Perhaps because of his self-destructiveness, we're hearing more and more people openly question Trump's mental health. Senator Bob Corker, a Republican, expressed fears about his "stability." Aside from whispers about Ronald Reagan supposedly becoming more senile in his final years in office, is there any precedent for the president having his mental illness challenged in this way?

No. We've had presidents with mental illness, mostly by way of depression. [Abraham] Lincoln suffered from terrible depression. But this was not known widely while they were in office.

I would say the closest we can get to Trump for mental instability would be Richard Nixon. I don't think the press or public thought he was having a mental breakdown (as his administration crumbled in the wake of the Watergate scandal), but people in his administration saw it, and we learned about it later. We're seeing in real time a president with mental instability in the White House.

That's pretty scary. What's your biggest fear about Trump, and the lasting effect he will have on our country?

Aside from a cataclysm he could perpetrate or provoke, my fear as a scholar of the presidency is that he will change, and indeed ruin, the office of the presidency forever by the new precedents he has created. My hope is the next president will not be along these lines, and we will go back to a normal presidency. My fear is that you will have more people running for president as celebrities, in order to become more celebrated.

We saw with Sarah Palin and Herbert Cain the phenomenon of people running for president and going on to use that celebrity to sell books and appear on reality television. That's worrisome enough. But having someone who already had a reality show become president because of his manipulation of that celebrity—that's what worries me now. I'm afraid other people like that will run.

Barbara Perry.

Barbara Perry.

We can hope that people will realize that didn't work so well for the country (the first time we tried it). But I'm afraid that many people like that will toss their hats into the ring, and one of them may be elected president.

So can this be called the "celebritization" of the presidency?

That's a really good word! Celebritization leads to the trivialization of the office, which reduces its legitimacy and lowers respect for it.

The New York Times had an extraordinary story Monday about the fact that Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are engaging in a nasty feud with each other. Is there any historical precedent for a president openly warring with the head of his own party's Congressional delegation?

Since that news surfaced, I've been looking back, and, so far, I haven't found an example. Presidents typically understand that it doesn't serve them well to attack a leader of their own party—especially blatantly, publicly, and bombastically. This is beyond me; it's just Trump's personality.

Remember, it's how he got to the presidency—by attacking "the establishment," Republican as well as Democrat. That's what McConnell represents. Also, remember that McConnell never would support Trump by name during the election. He would only say, "I'm supporting the nominee of my party." I'm sure Trump remembers that.

The Atlantic's David Graham recently argued that Trump is now effectively a lame duck. Do you agree?

I don't. I think that's going too far. He does have accomplishments he can point to, including the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court—which, ironically, was because of Mitch McConnell! He's also rolling back regulations and making other appointments to the federal judiciary. So it's not like he's completely impotent.

It won't surprise me if he doesn't get any legislation through, given his track record so far. He has not only shown no ability to get things passed in Congress; he is putting off the very people who could help him do that—not just McConnell, but Lisa Murkowski, John McCain, Jeff Flake. Unless he manages to get more senators who will fight for him elected in the mid-terms, I don't see how he goes forward legislatively. But he's too unpredictable to say it's over for him.

Do you fear more racial tension as the nation reaches the tipping point where we no longer have a white majority?

Whenever you have a changing of the guard, the group that has been in power is not going to give that up easily. That said, the nation is so heterogeneous now. Trump's election was caused by the oddities of the electoral college; he lost the popular vote. My hope is that we will continue down a road of heterogeneity, and it will be peaceful.

It seems like the structure of the government put into place by our founders is holding up rather well. What is it that they understood so well?

The founding fathers saw "factions" as the most worrisome element of republics. James Madison writes about this in his Federalist Paper No. 10. He feared factions will cause the downfall of a republic. But he also realized that, if you have liberty, people will inevitably form into factions along many different lines. He argued that the republic should take in as many groups as possible, to prevent an easy majority from taking hold. Instead, you had complex majorities that forced people to work together. Then you also have the separation of powers. You break up power at every opportunity, rather than concentrating power. So far, that has served us well.

So Jefferson, Adams, and their peers really did us a service, as we're seeing when the checks and balances of power restrict what Trump can do.

Yes, but the Electoral College was meant by the founders to prevent a dangerous demagogue from being elected president by appealing to a dangerous minority—which is what we're seeing now.

That is ironic.

Isn't it? They couldn't have imagined the growth of our democracy—the broad franchise that we have—nor could they have anticipated modern media, much less social media. Those two things have become a toxic mix in the hands of Trump. He uses social media to rile up his base—a minority of the voters—in truly demagogic fashion.

What's it like in Charlottesville now?

I'm just finishing up an interview here with my mentor, Henry Abraham, who will turn 96 on Friday. He's a retired University of Virginia professor who taught civil rights and liberties for 50 years. He is now scared, rightly, to go to services.

Charlottesville is a tiny town of 50,000 people. Whenever anything happens in town, you're right by it. His Jewish temple, downtown, was right in the middle of all the demonstrations; it's just down the street from the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues. No one saw a police presence there the night of the disturbance. I don't want to criticize the police, but to say the least, there was a lack of proper planning for this.

As a 15-year-old German Jew from Frankfurt, [Abraham] ran from the Nazis in 1937. I just finished hearing his story about that. He called me up after Trump's speech at the Republican convention and said, "I haven't heard a speech like that since I left Germany."

He's not in any way an alarmist, but he basically told me, "This is how it began."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.