Politics has always had stagecraft, but Donald Trump is a drama queen.
When he announced he was running for president, he skipped the hay bales in an Iowa barnyard and instead descended from his gilded cage atop Manhattan's Trump Tower on an escalator, waving like a potentate. He did not sing a song of America, but of himself - as the answer to the country's problems.
After 18 months, the Trump show is still running.
On Tuesday at 3:55 a.m., the president-elect posted a tweet arguing flag burners should be punished - "perhaps loss of citizenship or a year in jail!" The media ran with it. Uproar ensued. Recently, Trump falsely claimed on Twitter that he won the popular vote, "if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." Critics went nuts. Then he blurted out his choice for defense secretary at a "thank you" rally for supporters in Cincinnati on Thursday.
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
The question is, will Trump's free-form theatricality work in the Oval Office? It's a sober job, and the words of presidents can rattle markets and inflame or calm crises, whether delivered from a White House lectern or in 140-character bursts on Twitter, Trump's go-to tool of mass communications.
With Trump, there's a constant churn, by design. He provokes, thrives on controversy that most leaders avoid, and orchestrates drama. Consider the Kabuki of potential secretary of state and former foe Mitt Romney: praised, trashed, invited over for dinner. It's as if he has been writing and hosting a reality TV show all along. The President. And the audience is hooked.
"He began to develop a persona, a character, just like he did on The Apprentice," said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor who directs the Center for Television and Popular Culture. "He's the tough guy who barges in, gets stuff done, and breaks the established rules of presidential politics. He doesn't care what people think. . . . Is he framing it all as entertainment or are we consuming it as entertainment?"
The Apprentice ran for 11 seasons on NBC, featuring Trump as an over-the-top billionaire applying his business skills to problems and separating the wheat from the chaff among the contestants vying to work for him.
He already had been established in the culture as that guy, playing himself on TV shows like The Nanny and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
During the presidential campaign, Trump adjusted and tweaked his character based on audience reactions, often live at his rallies, Thompson said, "operating under the same rules entertainment does."
In other words, the seeming opposite of the incumbent president, the first occupant of the Oval Office to use Twitter, who was nicknamed during his 2008 campaign "No Drama Obama" for his calm, cool approach. The no-filter persona of Trump was in tune with 2016 voters angry and disgusted with the direction of the country.
"Donald Trump is a master of the social-media environment," said Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist Charlie Gerow. "He's now got the ability to end-run, to bypass the national media in ways Ronald Reagan could not have imagined."
Indeed, as of Sunday, Trump had not had a news conference in 130 days.
His campaign advisers believed he would not get fair treatment from the journalists tracking his moves.
"The largest super PAC is called the media," Trump digital director Brad Parscale said at a conference last week at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "We had media bias that we had to spend money and energy to push back on and correct the message."
It worked better than expected, they said, as Trump's Twitter messages were amplified on TV networks, in newspapers, and on news sites - in many cases driving coverage. "It was like owning the New York Times without the overhead or the debt," said Michael Glassner, who was Trump's deputy campaign manager.
Twitter enables and intensifies the permanent campaign that the presidency has in many ways become, analysts say, and Trump tweets can serve multiple purposes - provoking overreactions from opponents, firing up his base, keeping disparate GOP factions united against enemies (for example, the "failing New York Times," as Trump tweets it).
And tweet-storms have sometimes seemed timed to distract people from negative stories in the media, such as examinations of potential conflicts of interest in Trump's vast worldwide business holdings. Last month when the Trump University suit was settled, Trump took to Twitter to demand an apology from the Hamilton cast for disrespecting the vice president-elect.
The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
Presidents have always adapted to technology to try to speak over the heads of the information brokers. FDR gave radio fireside chats during the Depression. Dwight Eisenhower held televised news conferences. And Reagan's impresarios choreographed events to make sure the nightly news had to carry his message of the day.
"Whenever we see a president of the United States do anything - from pardoning a turkey to giving the State of the Union address - we're seeing a performance," said Thompson, the Syracuse professor.
Of course, the presidency is more than image manipulation. The president must build coalitions and try to get legislation and policy enacted, which takes sustained effort over time. And then there are crises, such as terrorist attacks, disease outbreaks, and disputes with other nations, which require a president to quickly discern important information from noise.
Thinking of these moments, critics are worried about Trump's habit of using Twitter to comment on sensitive events before solid information is available, such as labeling the massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub a terrorist attack immediately after the incident was reported.
They also express concern about times he has used the platform to spread conspiracy theories. The idea that millions of illegal votes were cast Nov. 8, for instance, first surfaced on Alex Jones' Infowars website, which has labeled the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting a hoax. There is no evidence of widespread vote fraud.
In a recent interview with the CBS program 60 Minutes, Trump seemed to acknowledge that the realities of his new job could cramp his social-media style.
"I'm going to do very restrained, if I use it at all, I'm going to do very restrained," he said.
But since then Trump has shown no signs of self-censorship. Will that change when he takes office Jan. 20?