President Trump read a boring speech badly last night. The long recitation was punctuated by odd comprehension errors. At one point, “walled-off cities and communities” came out sounding like “Waldorf cities and communities.”
Through most of the long recitation, the members of the partisan crowd seemed quiet, even listless. But there were rare sparks of enthusiasm, moments when Trump excited them. Near the end of the hour-long address, Trump intoned: “This November, we must turn the page forever on this failed political class. The fact is, I’m here”—and suddenly, he paused, turned theatrically to his left, and extended his hand toward the South Front of the White House. “What’s the name of that building?” he extemporized, and the crowd cheered, laughed, and whistled. He then extemporized some more. "But I’ll say it differently. The fact is, we’re here—and they’re not." Louder cheers, standing ovation.
To his admirers, one of the most attractive qualities of Donald Trump is his utter shamelessness. When he does something wrong, he boasts about it. He tells Lester Holt on television that he fired James Comey to shut down the Russia investigation. He tells George Stephanopoulos that he would again welcome foreign help for his reelection campaign. When he diverts taxpayer money to his businesses, he does so in full view of the watching world. When he takes payments from foreign governments, he does so in a garish hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. There is nothing apologetic about him. And this was once again on full display.
The Trump campaign probably broke the law—and certainly trashed norms of republican constitutionalism dating to the very origins of the United States—when it made a campaign prop of the White House. But was Trump troubled? Absolutely not. He basked in the moment. He invited his supporters to bask with him. Bask they did.
Donald Trump is a dreadful public speaker, but a master communicator.
When he chooses to deliver a formal oration, as he chose to do on the fourth night of the convention, he visibly bores himself. He comes alive only when he can free-associate onstage about his grievances, bigotries, and hatreds. And while those speeches may seethe with dark energy, they are hemmed in by his shrinking vocabulary and egocentric content. How much rhetorical juice can be squeezed from the single and endlessly recycled lemon They were mean to me?
But even provided with the most humdrum text, Trump finds ways to convey his powerful message: All those decencies that irritate and chafe you, that you don’t dare disregard? I dare. I dare for you.
Mid-speech, Trump expatiated on the greatness of the American past. “Our American ancestors sailed across the perilous ocean to build a new life on a new continent,” he began. Almost any other candidate, even any other Republican, would feel some need to acknowledge the experience of Native Americans and enslaved Africans, to place a question mark over the concept of wild frontier and open range—the literal phrases in his text. But Trump knows that millions of his fellow Americans are sick and tired of having to pretend to care about Black and Indigenous people. He wants them to know that he doesn’t care either. That’s what they love about him.
The night before Trump’s acceptance address, a Trump supporter shot three people, killing two, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The 17-year-old crossed state lines to carry his AR-15-style rifle to a scene of confrontation that ended in death. Some presidential nominees might have felt obliged to say something about that. Again: not Trump. “In the strongest possible terms, the Republican Party condemns the rioting, looting, arson and violence we have seen in Democrat-run cities like Kenosha, Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, and New York,” he said. Trump spoke not a word to his followers urging them to put down their guns and quit the provocateur tactics that have so often accelerated disorder into violence. He knows that millions of his fellow Americans regard an armed white vigilante as an honorary law-enforcement officer. He wants them to know that he agrees. That’s something else they love about him.
But here’s the most important thing Trump communicates, and why his setting last night resonated so powerfully, all the way to the partisan fireworks on the National Mall spelling out TRUMP and 2020. Trump’s big reelection pitch is “law and order.” He delivered that message while himself defying the laws and rules governing the use of government resources for partisan purposes. He delivered that message after another of his 2016 campaign chairs was indicted. He delivered that message while furiously battling in court to defeat subpoenas from New York prosecutors apparently investigating him, his family, and his companies for bank fraud. He delivered that message while running out the clock on congressional subpoenas investigating him, his family, and his companies for tax fraud. No president since Richard Nixon has seen so many of his closest associates convicted of, or pleading guilty to, criminal wrongdoing.
From the South Front of the White House, Donald Trump broke the law in order to communicate to his supporters that a crime is not something you do; a criminal is something you are. And by you, of course he means them.
Trump has lately invoked Abraham Lincoln with some frequency. Perhaps he was influenced by another of the felons in his circle, Dinesh D’Souza, who produced a sycophantic film equating Trump to Lincoln. But Trump’s core idea is exactly the opposite of Lincoln’s. Lincoln insisted in the throes of civil war that he was the president of the whole United States, and all of its people—even those in armed rebellion against his authority.
Trump is a secessionist from the top. As my colleague Ron Brownstein often observes, Trump regards himself as a wartime president of Red America against Blue America. That’s how he can describe riot and disorder as happening in “Biden’s America,” even when it happens under his presidency. In his mind, the majority of the country is already “Biden’s America,” even before Biden enters office—and the remainder of it will continue to be “Trump’s America,” even should Trump leave office.
Since we are two countries, we can have two sets of laws and rules: one for friends, another for enemies. That’s why so many prominent Trump supporters can look at the shooting in Kenosha and perceive the gunman, who went to a city where he did not live with an AR-15-style rifle in hand, as acting in self-defense. The gunman had legitimate rights that must be respected. The dead men did not, and neither did all the many victims this year of police shootings. If those victims had criminal records, then they were criminals—unlike, say, Michael Flynn, who remains a rights-bearing American despite his criminal record. Two countries, two classes of citizen, two systems of law.
That was the message Trump so masterfully communicated with his abuse of the White House Thursday night—advertised by huge digital screens that blared his campaign logo, self-applauded by the big fireworks show that Trump-branded the Washington Monument. And that’s the question on the ballot this November, too: Is the law a set of obligations and rights binding for all, or a tool of power for the benefit of some?