President Donald Trump knows a guy. No matter what issue Trump is addressing, he seems either to know somebody with a relevant personal experience or he’s got a firsthand tale to recount. When he met airline CEOs on Thursday, Trump said his own pilot, “who’s a real expert”, had told him about problems with obsolete equipment. When he met business and economic experts a week earlier, Trump cited the difficulties his friends in business were having borrowing money from banks as he spoke about the need to reduce financial regulations.
When he approvingly sized up Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Trump said last month that he’d had a “very bad experience” in his own businesses when dealing with the EU bureaucracy. “Getting the approvals from Europe,” he said, “was very, very tough.” Call him the anecdotal president: For good or ill, Trump processes policy proposals through his own personal frame of reference. “It’s all about him,” says Jeff Shesol, who wrote speeches for President Bill Clinton. “His frame for Europe, his frame for the airlines, his frame for the banking system … is himself.”
It’s not necessarily a bad thing to draw on real-world experiences in developing or justifying policy. Plenty of presidents and politicians have recognised the value of anecdotal storytelling in advancing their agendas. President Barack Obama offered his own improbable life story as a metaphor for the wide-open possibilities available to all Americans. And he frequently drew on the concerns that came up in the 10 letters a day that he read from people who wrote to the White House. Clinton was famous for sketching his encounters with ordinary Americans.
President Lyndon Johnson drew on his early experiences teaching disadvantaged Mexican-Americans in stressing the importance of education and economic opportunity for all Americans. “I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American,” Johnson said after signing the Higher Education Act of 1965. “Great Communicator” Ronald Reagan related the story of a woman who falsely collected welfare payments, then parlayed it into a stereotype of “welfare queens” cheating the system.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor specializing in political communication, says that in his first three weeks in office, Trump has surpassed even Reagan in his reliance on the use of “argument by anecdote.” “Given the extemporaneous nature of Trump’s presidency,” she says, “we can reasonably assume that these individual moments are playing a more important role for him” in developing policy than they did for presidents past.
The risk, she adds, is that an overreliance on personal experiences “can lead to the assumption that something is typical when it’s atypical.” With Trump, it’s hard to tell exactly what goes into his policymaking. But the billionaire businessman-turned-politician cites experiences from his own, very rarefied world that wouldn’t necessarily track those of ordinary Americans.