Campaigning in Cleveland yesterday, Donald Trump unveiled a line of attack against Hillary Clinton that seemed fairly new for him. “Does she look presidential, fellas?” he asked. “Give me a break.”
Don’t brush past the use of the word “fellas” too quickly. It’s as if the Republican presidential hopeful believed men in the audience would understand his concern in a specific way – that women would not.
ABC News’ David Muir asked the GOP nominee about this last night:
MUIR: Let me ask you. You’ve often talked about Hillary Clinton’s stamina. You even said she doesn’t “look presidential.”TRUMP: I really do believe that.MUIR: But what do you mean by that?TRUMP: Well, I just don’t think she has a presidential look and you need a presidential look.
Muir pressed on, asking if Trump was trying to make some kind of argument about “aesthetics,” prompting the Republican to respond, “I’m talking about general.” Trump then changed the subject, emphasizing how impressed he is with his own “temperament.”
Perhaps now would be a good time for a conversation about what a president “looks like.”
In May 2007, Time magazine published a largely flattering story on Mitt Romney, and the headline on the cover told readers he “looks like a president.” A variety of pundits said largely the same thing. Four years later, Bob Dole endorsed Romney, saying the former governor “looks like a president.”
In the same cycle, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen wrote a column touting Texas’ Rick Perry as someone who “actually looks like a president.”
Note, none of these assessments were in reference to candidates demonstrating a presidential stature – we’re not talking about those who act like a president – rather they were all about physical appearance. Many have a central-casting image in their mind about what a president is supposed to look like, and evidently, middle-aged white guys fit the bill.
Search for comparable reports of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton “looking like” a president and you’ll find it’s more difficult.
In yesterday’s case, Trump can’t bring himself to say outright, “Presidents should have y chromosomes,” so instead he relies on winks and nods, arguing that the former Secretary of State doesn’t “look presidential” enough by Trump’s standards – in a message intended for the “fellas.”
The end of these normative expectations is long overdue.
I can appreciate the fact that from 1789 to 2007 – well over two centuries – literally every American president was a white man between the ages of 42 and 69. It’s probably inevitable that certain cultural and societal assumptions will take root about what a chief executive is supposed to “look like.”
But here’s a not-so-radical suggestion: get over it. Americans may have had certain assumptions about what a soldier or a CEO or a television-news host is supposed to “look like,” too, but standards evolve and mature over time. News magazines weren’t running cover stories about Barack Obama having a presidential appearance, but then he became president, which should have, practically by definition, changed our expectations.
Hillary Clinton may soon do the same, misogynistic slights notwithstanding.