It read like a poem—or, perhaps, an elegy.
no place in”
And there the words ended: paper-printed snippets of the statement President Trump had delivered on Saturday, reacting to the events that had taken place in Charlottesville. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence,” he had said—before adding, apparently as an ad-lib: “On many sides, on many sides.” The president repeated those words on Monday, when he made, under pressure from his colleagues and from American citizens, a more expansive statement on Charlottesville. The bigotry on display in that city, he said, reading directly from a prompter, “has no place in America.”
On Tuesday, however, those words were replaced with new ones—during a press conference, set in the lobby of Trump Tower, that was meant to be about infrastructure, but that quickly came to be about Charlottesville. At one point, President Trump removed from his jacket pocket the text of his earlier statement, printed in large and blunt sans serif, to refer to what he had said before: “I brought it, I brought it,” he said of that text, reading it once again before putting it down, figuratively and extremely literally. The Associated Press photographer Pablo Martinez Monsivais captured the moment—in which only those few words, the we and the strongest and the egregious bigotry, were visible to viewers—and the reporter Colin Campbell tweeted the results: Here was the president referring to the carefully calibrated words that had been prepared for him. And here he was, replacing them—effectively erasing them—with new ones: words that, as The New York Times summed it up, give white supremacists “an unequivocal boost.” Words that led David Duke to cheer for the new order of things.
And, also, significantly: spoken words. Words that had not been prepared or otherwise vetted, but that seemed to have come directly from the mind of the president. Words, delivered in the presence of cabinet members who had come to talk about roads and bridges—they had brought scrolls printed with construction timelines to serve as visual aids—words that reportedly left members of the president’s staff “stunned and disheartened” precisely because they were public airings of “opinions that the president had long expressed in private.” Words that regressed to Saturday’s ad-libbed false equivalence: many sides, many sides.
Tuesday’s press conference will very likely be remembered as a moment of extreme moral clarity—the moment in which the emperor, speaking in his golden chamber with the aid of scrolls and servants, revealed himself, once again, for what he is. But there was something else that crystallized in that press conference: that image of the president, taking the words of reconciliation—words that had been selected and edited and set in the permanence of print—and undoing them. The president privileging his own words, the work of a mind in a moment, over those that had been chosen for him. In an instant, the “we” of the statement had been replaced, effectively, with an “I.”
Writing suggests rationality. Writing suggests consideration. Writing suggests external memory—Plato was wary of it, for precisely this reason—but it also suggests memory that is, by default, collective. The law distinguishes between written agreements and verbal ones, between libel and slander, between words that come in the heat of the moment, essentially, and words that take their time to breathe and cool. So do most people: When you really care about something—when you want to make sure you don’t forget about it—you generally write it down.
Those distinctions, however, are considerably less meaningful when it comes to American presidents, whose words are understood to be not merely their own, but the nation’s. Presidential words are traditionally the work of many behind-the-scenes writers; even when those words are spoken and “off the cuff”—even when they’re uttered in impromptu press conferences or on whimsical comedy shows—they have still, traditionally, adopted the deliberately calibrated approaches of text. Let me be clear, President Obama would say. Read my lips, George H. W. Bush put it, ruinously.
This caution, certainly, can be a frustration to people who simply want to know what a president is thinking. There’s a reason that “scripted,” in the political context, is usually something of a slur. In a broader sense, though, the sanctity of presidential words has long been an element of the compact between the presidency and the public. He will speak intentionally, the promise goes. He will speak carefully. He will speak understanding that he is speaking not merely for himself, but for all Americans. He will speak with the knowledge that, though he may be president, his mind—his particular sense of the world—is not the only one that matters.
Donald Trump rejects these norms. He treats his Twitter feed not as President Obama treated his—as a platform through which the White House, with all the institutions embedded in it, might speak to the nation—but as a mainline to the presidential mind. All the insults. All the typos. All the statements that would seem to suggest national policy, coming as they do from the president, but that often amount simply to angry observations. When President Trump speaks, in other words, he speaks for himself—often to the surprise and occasionally to the horror of the people charged with sending messages on behalf of the White House. It’s one reason Trump’s admirers admire him: the honesty of it, the ease of it, the rip-out-the-middleman efficiency of it. President Trump tells it like it is, they note. No political correctness here. No compromise here.
The other way of looking at the president’s attitude, though, is the way that is captured so elegantly in Pablo Martinez Monsivais’s image of those curtailed notes: as a rejection of the communal nature of government. Here were words that had been printed out for the president—words that he had delivered to a wounded and weary nation. Here were words that were written down in every meaningful sense of that phrase: carefully selected by a team of committed people, with an eye toward inclusion and an aim at the sweep of history. Words that were edited, and considered, and reconsidered, and calibrated for a country that is as diverse as it is immense.
And, then: Here were those same words, undone in the span of minutes. Here was all that careful writing, and editing, and fact-checking, nullified by the president’s erroneous equivalencies, by his ad-libbed words about the “alt-left” and George Washington. Here was the American president, choosing the workings of his own mind over the workings of the presidency. On Tuesday, President Trump used printed text to remind reporters, and the country, of what he had said before—what he had read before: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. It has no place in America.” The president added, shifting in subject from the plural “we” to the singular Donald Trump: “And then I went on from there.”