It helps to arrive in office knowing who you are. Obama, always poised and self-contained, knew his own worth full well. Yet he accomplished less as a result, because he never really pushed the limits of what he could achieve. Thatcher, despite her reputation for knowing her own mind, was surprisingly fragile in her confidence and scatty in her convictions. Yet she understood, with an almost uncanny instinct, what someone with her personality could achieve as prime minister, especially when the occasion arose. Blair was far more self-confident and sure of what he believed than Thatcher was. But it did him little good. He persisted in trying to make the office of PM suit his convictions, rather than trying to adapt those convictions to the limits of what the office made possible. Bill Clinton was perhaps the most intelligent man ever to occupy the Oval Office. His mind was voracious in its appetite for new information and fresh insights. It was too much. He couldn’t contain the intelligence he had within the space of the role he occupied. It spilled out, and too often it went nowhere.
It is sometimes said that it doesn’t do for a president or prime minister to be too smart: a second-class mind is more likely to make for a first-class leader. Like many such generalisations about politics, there’s some truth to it, but also plenty that it misses. There are lots of different ways for a politician to be intelligent, and there are many things that politicians can know which are unknown to anyone on the outside. What matters is whether they know what it is that they know. And if they do, whether they understand what that knowledge is good for.
This brings us to Trump, who in many ways exemplifies the idea that the personality of the politician reveals the character of the office he occupies. His persona is not going to change. He is disturbingly consistent in what he has always been: showman, chauvinist, charlatan. What he is doing is testing how far a man like that is able to push the boundaries of what a president can be. He has been more successful than many people believed was possible. His willingness to say anything – and possibly to believe anything – in order to get his way turns out to be a surprisingly effective means of maximising his authority. Given that a majority of Americans revile him, he has done quite a lot with the limited power he has. Perhaps he too bucks the fable of The Wizard of Oz. He simply refuses to acknowledge the existence of the curtain. He wants people to see
What makes Trump so unnerving, however, is his seeming lack of any self-knowledge. He is not really probing for the limits of what the presidency allows, because that would require him to accept that there are limits. He does what he does regardless. Trump is both more and less than a president should be. More, because he is behaving as though his power were truly as he believes it to be. Less, because he is also behaving as though the presidency were just another job (businessman, reality TV host). Much of the time he does not seem to appreciate where he is. Why would someone whose personality is so fixed be so unpredictable in office? Because that personality makes him incapable of seeing the presidency as its previous occupants have seen it, as an office that comes with certain expectations of how to behave. Trump is, in institutional terms, unhinged.
Does that mean he is mentally unfit to be president? During his time in the White House Trump has been dogged by repeated rumours about his intellectual incapacity – he has been variously described as a “fucking moron”, “like an 11-year-old child”, a “dope”, an “idiot” and “dumb as shit”. And that’s just how his former aides and colleagues speak about him. Plenty of psychiatrists have pushed back hard against the so-called “Goldwater rule”, which prevents them from diagnosing the psychological failings of public figures at second hand. For many, this injunction bars them from simply stating the obvious: Trump is out of his mind.
But we should be wary of assuming that this is enough to place Trump beyond the pale of conventional political leadership. Blair was widely thought to have lost his mental bearings during and after the Iraq war. Brown was pursued by stories of titanic rages and prolonged depressions.Some believe that the true story of Theresa May’s premiership has been suppressed, that as a type-1 diabetic she faces cognitive handicaps, including an inability either to process new information or to change her mind. These kinds of accusations come with the territory: presidents and prime ministers are often thought to be psychologically undone by office. It is one of the ways we express our discomfort with anyone aspiring to that kind of power.
Max Weber, writing 100 years ago, made the case that the risk of madness is not simply an accidental byproduct of high office. It is an essential part of it: a feature, not a bug. Presidents and prime ministers have to deal with the mental strain of bearing enormous political responsibility without necessarily having the personal authority to match. The leaders of modern states hold the lives of millions in their hands, and yet they often can’t even get the people in the next room to do what they want. It might make anyone a little crazy. Leadership is a constant tug of war between the rules of political accountability and the law of unintended consequences. That has not changed in the time since Weber wrote. One reason it is so hard to be a president or a prime minister is that the voters hold the wizard responsible for what happens. Even though the wizard is just the impostor behind the curtain.
By far the sanest president or prime minister of recent times was Obama. He went out of his way to maintain an even keel, even in the face of the most outrageous provocation. He made sure that he stayed connected with his family and that he got enough downtime. Is it possible to be too sane for the presidency? Certainly there were moments when Obama’s insistence on keeping his cool looked like a missed opportunity. Sometimes one longed to see him let rip. But that was not his style. Nor was it what got him elected.
This is the other deep tension that resides in the character of anyone who pursues the highest office. The personality traits that can win you the crucial election may not be the ones that suit the role to which you have been elected. Campaigning, as the slogan goes, is not governing. Obama the candidate was known to his inner circle as “‘No drama’ Obama”. During his long, bruising, underdog campaign in 2008 to wrest the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton, and then for the duration of the shorter but equally high-wire act needed to win a general election that was taking place as the world economy was having a heart attack, his level temperament was a golden asset. Refusing to get ruffled got him over the line. But when he became president he needed other skills too. His preference for cool analysis over impulsive decision-making and his insistence that he would not be baited by his baying opponents – as his wife, Michelle, memorably said in 2016, “when they go low, we go high” – were still assets. But they were not enough.
Personal development is very difficult over the course of a political career, especially when being who you are has made you what you have become. Why would political leaders whose approach to politics won them office abandon that approach once they get there? Trump stormed to the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency in 2016 with a scorched earth campaign that recognised no limits and took no prisoners. He defeated his rivals by mocking them, belittling them and, when the opportunity arose, lying about them. That is how he has carried on conducting himself as president, to continuing howls of outrage from his opponents. But who is to say he is wrong? If high office doesn’t change who politicians really are, we shouldn’t expect them to change how it makes them behave.
Some politicians reach the top without having to win an election to get there. When May faced a general election in 2017, by choice rather than by necessity, the skill set that had got her to Downing Street let her down. The tenacious, colourless, undeviating politician who tiptoed over the corpses to inherit the crown in the aftermath of the Brexit vote morphed on the campaign trail into the deathless Maybot: cold, mechanical and seemingly without a personality of her own. On the stump, Jeremy Corbyn, a politician for whom campaigning has been the lifeblood of his entire career, ran rings round her.