Trump Time Capsule #40: 'Back to Mike Pence'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Tweet from @realDonaldTrump after the ticket’s debut today.

I am again impressed by and grateful to the crew at C-Span, which has promptly put up a full, high-rez version of the Trump-Pence announcement ceremony that ended not long ago. You can see the whole thing via C-Span here.

You would probably need to see the whole thing, from Trump’s entry 10 seconds into the clip to his baton-pass to Pence 28 minutes later, to assess the claim I’m about to make. But here it goes: I think this event rivals and even surpasses his “I hate mosquitos!” speech, described here, in raising concerns about Trump’s basic fitness to govern, at the temperamental and emotional level.

How can I say this? Watch and see what you think. In brief:

  • The speech is a series of feints, in which Trump will briefly mention Pence’s name, or say “Now back to Mike Pence,” and then within seconds surge off on another riff about how great Trump’s own businesses are, how ahead-of-schedule and under-budget his new hotel in Washington is going to be, how big and beautiful The Wall will be, how crooked Hillary is, how terrible NAFTA and the Iraq War were. These last points are notable because Mike Pence, standing just off-stage, was a strong supporter of both NAFTA (plus the TPP) and the Iraq War.
    For better and worse, I am not aware of any other free-flow performance like this at a major general-election event since Ronald Reagan’s painfully rambling “I remember driving down the California coast one day” closing statement during his second debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. (More about this after the jump.)
  • It’s another series of feints or riffs, involving the Telepromptered script. Trump will dutifully read for a few seconds, in schoolboy-under-duress mode  — and then look up, brighten, and give a gloss or improvisation about what he has just said. These departures are clearly more enjoyable for him, but are usually off-message and sometimes even anti-message involving Pence. (For instance, that Crooked Hillary’s bad judgment about Iraq should disqualify her from office. Which means about Pence … ? )
  • Trump offers a number of “principal” reasons for choosing Pence. One of them is that he “looks good.” Another, explained at greater length, is that Indiana’s economy under Pence has been so great, while the national economy under Obama has been so terrible. In fact, Indiana’s recovery has exactly paced that of the economy as a whole, and the state’s manufacturers have been a particular object of the Obama administration’s support rather than indifference or hostility. (Eg Obama’s recent visit to Elkhart, to check out the progress of the RV industry.)
  • The morning after an attempted coup in Turkey — a country that is a NATO ally, where U.S. nuclear weapons are based, which is at the center of international tensions over refugees and the struggles within Islam and dealing with ISIS and dealing with Syria — Trump’s comments, as potential commander in chief, were, in toto: “So many friends in Turkey. Great people, amazing people. We wish them well. A lot of anguish last night, but hopefully it will all work out.”

Beyond these and other detailed points is the fact that the First Joint Appearance With the Veep is one of a small number of established message-sending moments in a national campaign. The next big ones will come at the convention, with Pence’s speech and then Trump’s. More will come during the debates, and then with a handful of requisite Big Policy Speeches in the fall.

So one of these handful of formal-event moments has just passed, but turned into another Trump rally-to-the-base performance rather than anything else. The reason this matters more than the mosquitos! speech is that the circumstances of this event were so different, as was the opportunity to be seized or missed. When this campaign is over and we know the results, we can judge which of these interpretations of Trump’s performance is more plausible:

  • That the rules of general-election campaigning (and not just victory in a multi-candidate scrum within one party’s primaries) have so fundamentally changed that Trump’s riff-and-ramble approach is the effective one for these times; or
  • That we’re seeing, in these early days of Trump’s general election mode, the reasons why his message and appeal could not extend beyond the base.

For more, please watch the speech. And on the bright side, it took them only a day to get rid of the old logo.

Trump-Pence logo as of yesterday.

On the Reagan-Mondale debate, you can see the way Reagan drifted off at the end of his second debate, starting at time 1:22:15 below.

Even though Reagan was on his way to a landslide re-election victory, this debate registered at the time as an embarrassment for him and a win for Mondale. Historical assessments have suggested that this was a rare, early public display of the changes that Reagan’s incipient Alzheimer’s disease was beginning to cause. From a sympathetic account, which starts with Reagan’s brilliant use of the “highway” story in a speech in 1976:

This 1976 triumph is the source of the muddled Pacific Coast Highway time-capsule story of eight years later! This is where he was trying to go, in the ’84 debate. It’s horrible.

What happened? It’s impossible, yet tempting, to imagine that in ’84 he went off script, flashing back to the big moment of ’76, that he thought he was really there again, that he re-lived it all in front of us, then start realizing it was all nothing a waking dream and started trying to come back to reality.

When experienced standup comics start bombing, it’s said that they tend to grab the first eight-minute routine that ever worked for them and just do it. They can’t help it; they go back to what worked once. Reagan hadn’t bombed in the debate — he would go on to win the election handily — but maybe he thought he had? (Anyone watching today would think so too.) So he went straight to one of his greatest hits.

But in real life, and even more depressing, Reagan and his ’84 people had clearly come up with this reprise of an old bit, deeming it a safe, tried-and-true thing that he had a chance of pulling off, as spaced as he was. He didn’t pull it off, but I guess they thought it was their best shot.

Grim stuff. Can there be any real doubt anywhere about Reagan’s rapidly diminishing mental competence during his presidency? He fell asleep in public, responded to questions via coaching from his wife, etc.

This is all well known — yet there’s a way in which none of it mattered. Literally. It didn’t matter. Reagan was fulfilling some entirely other national purpose, nothing to do with executive function, and I now realize that, at this point in my life, and no matter how long I live, his presidency will never seem long ago to me. Such is the nature of memory that for me, as for him, it’s all back there in the past, reality and impressions mingled, all still happening.