Literalists might say: “It’s whatever behaviour and affect a President exhibits.”
But most of us will have something more rigorous in mind. To be “presidential” means to be dignified but masterly, simultaneously courteous yet decorous, friendly in a self-contained sort of way. The problem with this view is that so many presidents throughout history have violated it, from Andrew Jackson and his smash-up-the-china parties at the White House to Bill Clinton’s novel deployment of cigars with Monica Lewinsky.
Donald Trump recently mocked the traditional idea of being presidential, explaining that behaving in that way is “a lot easier than what I do.” His demonstration of what he meant at a rally had the twin virtues of being amusing and appealing to his base.
From the very beginning of his campaign, Donald Trump has acted in ways that shatter our usual notions of what it means to be presidential. Think of his comment during the campaign to Megyn Kelly about canines and Rosie O’Donnell, his description of Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man” from the floor of the UN’s General Assembly, or indeed his steady stream of provocative tweets about world leaders, contentious domestic issues, and even members of his own staff.
Back around the time of the Republican convention in 2016, I wrote a column called “Dr. Donald and Mr. Trump” suggesting that Donald Trump was a bit like the Robert Louis Stevenson character Dr. Jekyll whose demonic alter-ego Mr. Hyde kept peeking through and upsetting his personality. No sooner had candidate Trump outlined some splendid plan for dealing with urban blight (say) than he suggested that Rafael Cruz, the father of Senator Cruz, was somehow involved with Lee Harvey Oswald. Yikes!