An Ode to Trump’s Outtakes
His post-insurrection-speech rehearsals are even more revealing—and disturbing—than the final version.
If, as Carl von Clausewitz once observed, the mark of a historic moment is that no one knows what the fuck is going on, then what we have here is a historic moment. (Pretty sure it was von Clausewitz who said that.) What we have here is President Donald Trump, the day after his people sacked the Capitol, trying to strike a tone. Which tone? He doesn’t know. And it’s making him very uncomfortable.
He doesn’t want to scold them, to be censorious, because that’s not his style; his style is to get everybody pumped. But that was yesterday. Today, apparently, he has to be boring. He has to be pouty and presidential. People died, after all. Things got broken. They wanted to string up Mike Pence! As fun as it was—and it was a lot of fun—pointing an armed mob at Congress might not have been the greatest idea he ever had.
So now what? He stands at the lectern, in his lambency, in his mysterious Trumpy softness, between two sternly drooping flags: Donald Trump, great communicator-confuser, great charismatic muddle of signals and twisty wires, groping for a mood. He’s pettish. He’s trying hard. Someone’s written this speech for him, this pompous speech, and he’s reading it in his special slushy, droning-intoning rhetorical-blah-blah-blah voice, the voice that means he doesn’t mean it. “I would like to begin by addressing the heinous attack yesterday …” Heinous: fine American word. You can use it to describe a mass shooting (“this heinous act”) or a bad slice of pizza (“this crust is heinous.”)
He makes a twirly gesture with his hand. Go again. Another take. Trump squints, really squints, at the teleprompter, his squashy features knitting themselves into that Trumpian squiggle of obtuseness/penetration. His vibe is all over the place. “To those who broke the law …” he says with bedtime tenderness. Then he says “You will pay.” He looks uneasy. Paying for stuff: That doesn’t sound right. Better than “You belong in jail,” though, which he flat-out won’t say: “Can’t say that, I’m not gonna—I already said ‘You will pay.’” Keep going! “The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol … have DEFIED THE SEAT OF DESTINY—” He breaks off in frustration, gives the lectern a double-handed thump. The line is “defiled the seat of American democracy.” Why can’t Trump be Trump? Why can’t he just give it one of his delirious in-the-moment rewrites? To defile the seat of democracy … big deal. But to defy the seat of destiny? Now you’re talking.
No improv today, though, no drifting off into dreamy Trumptime. Today he’s sticking to the script. Mostly. He doesn’t want to say “This election is now over.” Because the election is never over. The election is a permanent state, a law of nature, bellum omnium contra omnes. And he doesn’t want to say “yesterday.” “Yesterday is a hard word for me.” (Oh the webs of philosophy you could spin from that.) “Just take it out,” suggests somebody off-camera, a voice from a cloud, like a beam of white gold. It’s Ivanka, sweet, holy mother-daughter-editor Ivanka. Naturally she is there.
“My only goal was to ensure the integrity of the vote.” That’s a tricky line. A flaming, screaming, mile-high soaring falsehood of course, but also a thorny collection of t-sounds. They get stuck in his teeth. The integrity of the vote? Jesus Christ. Is there a fairy tale where some big liar is trying to tell a lie so enormous, he is literally unable to get it out of his mouth? Trump over-enunciates, fluffs the line, snarls ultra-whitely, tries again, fluffs it again, swats the lectern with a testy hand.
But this is not a fairy tale. A couple more takes and he’ll nail it. No curse will adhere to him. He will defy the seat of destiny, and come bouncing, bouncing back.