Category Archives: Donald Trump

When image trumps ideology: How JFK created the template for the modern presidency



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President John F. Kennedy watches as planes conduct anti-sub operations during maneuvers off the North Carolina coast in April 1962.
Associated Press

Steven Watts, University of Missouri-Columbia

Even at John F. Kennedy’s centennial on May 29, 2017, the 35th president remains an enigma. We still struggle to come to a clear consensus about a leader frozen in time – a man who, in our mind’s eye, is forever young and vigorous, cool and witty.

While historians have portrayed him as everything from a nascent social justice warrior to a proto-Reaganite, his political record actually offers little insight into his legacy. A standard “Cold War liberal,” he endorsed the basic tenets of the New Deal at home and projected a stern, anti-Communist foreign policy. In fact, from an ideological standpoint, he differed little from countless other elected officials in the moderate wing of the Democratic Party or the liberal wing of the Republican Party.

Much greater understanding comes from adopting an altogether different strategy: approaching Kennedy as a cultural figure. From the beginning of his career, JFK’s appeal was always more about image than ideology, the emotions he channeled than the policies he advanced.

Generating an enthusiasm more akin to that of a popular entertainer than a candidate for national office, he was arguably America’s first “modern” president. Many subsequent presidents would follow the template he created, from Republicans Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump to Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

A cultural icon

JFK pioneered the modern notion of the president as celebrity. The scion of a wealthy family, he became a national figure as a young congressman for his good looks, high-society diversions and status as an “eligible bachelor.”

He hobnobbed with Hollywood actors such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis, hung out with models and befriended singers. He became a fixture in the big national magazines – Life, Look, Time, The Saturday Evening Post – which were more interested in his personal life than his political positions.

Later, Ronald Reagan, the movie actor turned politician, and Donald Trump, the tabloid fixture and star of “The Apprentice,” would translate their celebrity impulses into electoral success. Meanwhile, the saxophone-playing Bill Clinton and the smooth, “no drama” Obama – ever at ease on the talk show circuit – teased out variations of the celebrity role on the Democratic stage.

After Kennedy, it was the candidate with the most celebrity appeal who often triumphed in the presidential sweepstakes.

A master of the media

Kennedy also forged a new path with his skillful utilization of media technology. With his movie-star good looks, understated wit and graceful demeanor, he was a perfect fit for the new medium of television.

He was applauded for his televised speeches at the 1956 Democratic convention, and he later prevailed in the famous television debates of the 1960 presidential election. His televised presidential press conferences became media works of art as he deftly answered complex questions, handled reporters with aplomb and laced his responses with wit, quoting literary figures like the Frenchwoman Madame de Staël.

Two decades later, Reagan proved equally adept with television, using his acting skills to convey an earnest patriotism, while the lip-biting Clinton projected the natural empathy and communication skills of a born politician. Obama’s eloquence before the cameras became legendary, while he also became an early adopter of social media to reach and organize his followers.

Trump, of course, emerged from a background in reality television and adroitly employed Twitter to circumvent a hostile media establishment, generate attention and reach his followers.

The vigorous male

Finally, JFK reshaped public leadership by exuding a powerful, masculine ideal. As I explore in my book, “JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier,” he emerged in a postwar era colored by mounting concern over the degeneration of the American male. Some blamed the shifting labor market for turning men from independent, manual laborers into corpulent, desk-bound drones within sprawling bureaucracies. Others pointed to suburban abundance for transforming men into diaper-changing denizens of the easy chair and backyard barbecue. And many thought that the advancement of women in the workplace would emasculate their male coworkers.

John F. Kennedy smokes a cigar and reads The New York Times on his boat off the coast of Hyannisport.
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Enter Jack Kennedy, who promised a bracing revival of American manhood as youthful and vigorous, cool and sophisticated.

In his famous “New Frontier” speech, he announced that “young men are coming to power – men who are not bound by the traditions of the past – young men who can cast off the old slogans and delusions and suspicions.”

In a Sports Illustrated article titled “The Soft American,” he advocated a national physical fitness crusade. He endorsed a tough-minded realism to shape the counterinsurgency strategies that were deployed to combat Communism, and he embraced the buccaneering style of the CIA and the Green Berets. He championed the Mercury Seven astronauts as sturdy, courageous males who ventured out to conquer the new frontier of space.

JFK’s successors adopted many of these same masculine themes. Reagan positioned himself as a manly, tough-minded alternative to a weak, vacillating Jimmy Carter. Clinton presented himself as a pragmatic, assertive, virile young man whose hardscrabble road to success contrasted with the privileged, preppy George H.W. Bush. Obama impressed voters as a vigorous, athletic young man who scrimmaged with college basketball teams – a contrast to the cranky, geriatric John McCain and a stiff, pampered Mitt Romney.

More recently, of course, Trump’s outlandish masculinity appealed to many traditionalists unsettled by a wave of gender confusion, women in combat, weeping millennial “snowflakes” and declining numbers of physically challenging manufacturing jobs in the country’s post-industrial economy. No matter how crudely, the theatrically male businessman promised a remedy.

So as we look back at John F. Kennedy a century after his birth, it seems ever clearer that he ascended the national stage as our first modern president. Removed from an American political tradition of grassroots electioneering, sober-minded experience and bourgeois morality, this youthful, charismatic leader reflected a new political atmosphere that favored celebrity appeal, media savvy and masculine vigor. He was the first American president whose place in the cultural imagination dwarfed his political positions and policies.

The ConversationJust as style made the man with Kennedy, it also remade the American presidency. It continues to do so today.

Steven Watts, Professor of History, University of Missouri-Columbia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In defence of the Vikings: they wouldn’t have suffered Donald Trump



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Piotr Piatrouski / Shutterstock.com

Keith Ruiter, University of Aberdeen

It has been suggested that Donald Trump “may get his assertive rather than passive manner from his alleged Viking ancestors”. Or so says Russian genealogist Aleksey Nilogov, who has been finding some traction for his beliefs on nationalistic eastern European news sites such as the Estonian World Review. The Conversation

Leaving aside the issue of genetic predispositions, as a scholar of Viking-Age Scandinavia, I take issue with this claim. The Vikings were a product of their time and – in that context – were a much less objectionable bunch than these suggestions imply. Delving into the Old Norse language helps us to better understand some of the ways that medieval Scandinavians might have viewed the overbearing and isolationist rhetoric dominating the international stage of late. In fact, just such an analysis suggests that Trump would probably not have had a great time navigating the political intrigue presented in the Icelandic Sagas.

Despite popular depictions of medieval Scandinavians as gruff, aggressive raiders, the sources from medieval Scandinavia reveal a complex society possessed of nuanced understandings of morality, law and honour.

Thingvellir National Park – where the first Viking Icelandic parliament (althing) seated.
Shutterstock

An overbearing man

The key to understanding these concepts in their contemporary context lies in the language of the early Scandinavian sources that survive to us. Sometimes, a single word can unlock a cluster of semantic and conceptual understandings.

Take, for example, the Old Norse word ójafnaðarmaðr. Broken into its constituent parts, the word could be rendered in English as “un-even-person”. But in the contexts of Eyrbyggja saga, one of the Sagas of Icelanders focusing on a locality in the north-west of the island, it’s clear that the unevenness being described is a disregard for fairness, equality, justice and the rights of others. This has led scholars to render the word as “an overbearing man”. An ójafnaðarmaðr, such as Styrr Þórgrímsson in Eyrbyggja saga, is fundamentally a social bully of the type who uses force and cunning to better their own position at the expense of those around them, save for a small group of loyal supporters drawn to their ruthless approach and success.

This certainly sounds like Trump’s infamous tactics: from his Twitter tirades, to his promises to bully Mexico into paying for a border wall, even to his ludicrously alpha handshake. His myopic focus on building himself up and cutting others down, even his vision of “America first”, certainly bear the hallmarks of the conduct of an ójafnaðarmaðr.

The problem is that the ójafnaðarmaðr was not someone to emulate or even admire in early Icelandic society, but someone to bring to heel. In the harsh, isolated climes of medieval Iceland, mutual aid from community and kinship were relied upon to rise to the challenges of the day. With no respect for reciprocity or the honour and rights of others, the ójafnaðarmaðr was fundamentally destructive to the fabric of their society – and their antisocial tactics, described in the sagas, tended to cut them off from their communities.

This most often ended up leaving them with precious few friends or allies to help when they inevitably got in over their head. This is certainly the case with Styrr, who needed to marry his daughter, who he loved more than anything, off to an old rival to help him get out of trouble with two berserkers (fierce Norse warriors).

Don’t bark at your guests

The condemnation of tactics used by ójafnaðarmaðr characters is also mirrored in the Old Norse poem Hávamál, “Sayings of the High One” (Carolyne Larrington’s translation quoted below). These verses conclusively deride such things as being disrespectful, overly aggressive, and lack of social engagement, even to those you might distrust.

In fact, Hávamál contains rebuttals for several of Trump’s early executive actions. As just one example, consider stanza 135 in the context of Trump’s adamant support of a travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations. The poem warns: “Don’t bark at your guests or drive them from your gate, treat the indigent well!” This seems to stand in stark opposition to Trump’s closed-door vision on immigration.

In a medieval Scandinavian context, this bullying bravado and disregard for hospitality and reciprocity was inherently isolating on a social level. And it is in relation to isolationism and responsible engagement with wider society that Hávamál takes a very clear stance. Stanza 50 says it best:

The fir-tree withers that stands on the farmstead,
Neither bark nor needles protect it;
So it is with the man whom no one loves,
How should he live for long?

Clearly antisocial tendencies such as isolationism or bullying were recognised as wholly unsuitable in the societies of the medieval Scandinavian milieu. Active social engagement was incredibly important. In no place is this clearer than in the early laws of Scandinavia, where outlawry – legally imposed exclusion from the community – was considered one of the gravest punishments a criminal could endure.

As the world continues to shrink thanks to modern technology, these old points of wisdom are worth revisiting in the global village of today to remind us of the importance of mutual respect, collaboration, conciliation and strong social bonds with all those around us.

One thing is clear. Any “Viking” ancestor that might be responsible for Trump’s personality would likely not have done that well in his own time.

Keith Ruiter, PhD Candidate in Scandinavian Studies, University of Aberdeen

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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