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Donald Trump and the Art of Looking Presidential

Getty Images
Getty Images

In the old days, children, presidentialdom grew on trees. You’d walk outside, and if you didn’t look carefully, you could step right into a big, sticky puddle of presidentiality. Your mom’s friend would host bake sales to send money to all the lonely, unwanted presidentialnesses, left abandoned by families who had all that they needed. Every four years, when you were compelled to contemplate the future of the White House, you would look at the two candidates’ muted tie choices, respectful barbs, and tidy hair parts and think: Heck, I can see either of those guys — yes, youths, guys; it was a long time ago — living there.

And now — well. It is sometimes hard to say what constitutes a big issue in the midst of the Donald J. Trump campaign, so quickly do his positions mutate. But much has been made over whether Trump is presidential — that is, whether voters can envision him residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, his bare pink feet padding across the Oval Office rug.

On Wednesday, Trump went to Mexico City to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto. The visit came as a surprise: to Americans, who have spent the past umpteen months listening to Trump explain his plans to build a massive wall along the southern border, and to Mexicans, whom Trump has insisted will pay for it, and who have generally been depicted as a kind of conniving and dangerous threat to American freedom and prosperity. Reports surfaced that Peña Nieto did not actually expect Trump to accept the invitation. Trump’s motivation in visiting our neighbor to the south just hours before delivering a major speech on his immigration platform, however, was clear: He went to Mexico for the explicit purpose of looking presidential.

What do we talk about when we talk about presidentiality? In its most common deployments, it suggests a commitment to diplomacy and a fundamental steadiness — the right demeanor, in short, to steer the ship. If all you knew about Trump was that he has never held public office, you might have some reservations about whether he possesses this quality. Take into account his reality show background, his penchant for name-calling, and his tendency to drastically and unpredictably change his policies, and … one could wonder.

His visit to Mexico was not perfect: Trump seemed to suggest radically different positions on trade than those he has articulated elsewhere, and created a minor controversy when he announced that he and Peña Nieto didn’t discuss his proposed wall, while Peña Nieto insisted that not only had the topic come up, but that he had also informed Trump, contrary to the Republican nominee’s assurances, Mexico would not pay for the wall. In the hours after Trump’s departure, the Mexican president — who had made it very clear that he was not a fan long before he had to deal with a public enraged by Wednesday’s visit — said Trump’s policies represented a “huge threat” to the country.

Still, Trump got what he wanted out of the trip. He appeared side by side with a foreign head of state; he stood behind a lectern; he engaged in private discussions. Some remarked that he had a historically low bar for what could be considered a successful visit. It was easy enough to joke about: If he could just manage to avoid jabbing a finger into anyone’s eyeball, we all might go home in peace.

But here’s the thing: Trump hasn’t gotten to this point by being presidential, at least not in anything close to the traditional sense. He left Mexico City for Phoenix, where he struck a radically different tone, doubling down on his calls for deportation and summoning parents who said their children were killed by undocumented immigrants to the stage, where he asked them to describe how their children were killed. Put another way: Just hours after leaving Mexico’s presidential palace, Trump was back to demonizing the country; to no one’s surprise, his words there were just words.

As his campaign has progressed, this has increasingly been his M.O. He has a bout of dignified posturing in the mold of past candidates for president, followed quickly by the sort of wild departure that might have sunk a more traditional politician’s campaign. Over the course of the winter and spring, he made a sport of offing his competitors for the 2016 Republican nomination — whose debate-club sheen, we were told, made them extremely presidential — in a blaze of Little Marcos and Lyin’ Teds. Trump mocked the establishment to its face, and was soundly rewarded. Whatever he was, it was what voters wanted.

Things are different in the general election. He’ll have to win over at least some of the people who were swayed by Marco Rubio’s overeagerness and Ted Cruz’s shrill oiliness, so it’s only natural that he’d want to show that he is a man who is at ease among heads of state. On September 26, Trump will face off against Hillary Clinton for the candidates’ first presidential debate. It has become one of the greater points of concern for Clinton supporters, who fear that Trump’s mere appearance beside her on stage — with all the red, white, and blue gravitas — will provide an air of legitimacy to a campaign that many Democrats have been eager to write off as an absurdity. In other words, they worry that the debate will make Trump look presidential.

It will, undoubtedly. Just don’t expect him to ease off the bombast for long.