How many people, given the prerogative to travel wherever they wanted and the use of a fully staffed jet to do it, would head to Phoenix, Arizona, in the dog days of August? But then Donald Trump often prefers to turn up the heat, and his rally Tuesday night was no different.
In remarks that veered between the carefully composed and the spontaneously concocted, Trump called for national unity even as he mounted all-out attacks on his enemies in the press and the Republican Party. He insisted he stood for all Americans but called Confederate monuments a part of “our” history. The president all but promised to pardon former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of criminal contempt of court, and told a series of out-and-out lies in the course of accusing the media of dishonesty.
In other words, Trump was back.
Not that he ever left. (Cue the Dan Hicks track.) The president’s 17-day vacation turned out to be eventful even by the standards of his news-packed tenure in office, from his escalation of a nuclear crisis with North Korea to his endorsement of soft white supremacy. Now he’s headed back to Washington with two must-pass bills on the agenda—a debt-ceiling increase and a spending bill—and he’s attacking Republican senators, defending his response to Charlottesville, and, according to The New York Times, no longer on speaking terms with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his most essential Republican ally.
Things started on a somewhat conciliatory note Tuesday.
“Every American has the right to live with dignity,” Trump said. “Respect for America demands respect for all of its people. Loyalty to our nation requires loyalty to each other. We all share the same home, the same dreams, and the same hopes for a better future. A wound inflicted upon one member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all.”
Those uncharacteristically staid and inclusive words, read straight from a teleprompter, were precisely the kind of statement that most Americans expected the president to make last Saturday after the attack in Charlottesville, and to stick to. But they turned out not to augur a calmer speech. Instead, Trump soon headed off script, delivering a jeremiad that was sharply at odds with both those words and the truth.
The most blatant dishonesty concerned his response to the violence in Charlottesville. Trump made several statements about those events. On August 12, the day of the attacks, he said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.” Many people, including his own aides, viewed that statement as inadequate. Two days later he delivered a stronger one, saying, “Racism is evil.” But on August 15, he reversed course again, endorsing a sort of soft white supremacy and arguing that while the KKK and neo-Nazis were unacceptable, many of those who marched with them were good people. This statement earned him widespread condemnation, even from Republicans.
In Phoenix, Trump defended his response, arguing the media had lied about what he said.
“‘We're closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia’—this is me speaking—‘We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence.’ That's me speaking on Saturday, right after the event. So I'm condemning, the strongest possible terms, ‘egregious display of bigotry, hatred, and violence.’ You can't do much better.”
But this account was a lie itself. The phrase that stunned Trump’s critics was the “on many sides,” which he carefully omitted from his retelling in Phoenix. His case against media dishonesty rested on his own dishonesty. It was a textbook example of Trump’s penchant for projecting his own flaws and obsessions on others. Later on, the president, who has long obsessed publicly and privately over television ratings, added, “If you wanted to discover the source of the division in our country, look no further than the fake news and the crooked media, which would rather get ratings and clicks than tell the truth.” (Physician, heal thyself!) He also falsely claimed The New York Times had apologized to him for its coverage.
For all of Trump’s protestation that he condemned neo-Nazis and the Klan, the rally speech betrayed the fact that he spends far more energy bashing other groups—the press, certain Republican senators, Democrats—than he does denouncing white supremacists, and his attacks on the latter groups are never so glumly dutiful or begrudgingly delivered.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to push what might be called a white identity politics. He continues to defend Confederate monuments, which are symbols of a traitorous, losing war against the United States, fought to maintain the enslavement of people of color. “They're trying to take away our culture, our history,” he complained Tuesday. Trump’s use of the first-person plural in this sentence is fraught. Whose culture and history, precisely, is represented by Confederate monuments? As I first noted in May of 2016, Trump’s “we” often seems to exclude people of color.
The president used his visit to Phoenix to savage both of the state’s senators, Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake, though he did not mention either by name. McCain cast a decisive vote killing the most recent attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“We were just one vote away from victory after seven years of everybody proclaiming repeal and replace. One vote away. One vote away. We were one vote away,” Trump said. “I will not mention any names. Very presidential, isn't it? Very presidential.”
He also lashed out at Flake, the state’s junior senator, who has emerged in recent weeks as the president’s most dogged critic among elected Republicans.
“And nobody wants me to talk about your other senator, who’s weak on borders, weak on crime,” Trump said. “So I won't talk about him. Nobody wants me to talk about him. Nobody knows who the hell he is.”
Trump may have elided Flake’s name out of consideration for his staff’s requests—Vice President Mike Pence, who served with Flake was among those on stage with Trump—but he did not do so Wednesday morning as he tweeted about the rally:
Phoenix crowd last night was amazing - a packed house. I love the Great State of Arizona. Not a fan of Jeff Flake, weak on crime & border!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2017
It’s a lot of attention for someone whose name Trump claims no one knows.
If the president is not a fan of those current elected officials, he had nicer things to say about Arpaio, the former sheriff and immigration hardliner. Arpaio lost his most recent bid for reelection, and in July was convicted of criminal contempt of court after he continued to conduct immigration sweeps that a federal judge, deeming them illegal racial profiling, had ordered him to stop. In the days leading up to the rally, there had been speculation that Trump—who has insisted he will bring “law and order”—would pardon Arpaio while in Phoenix. He did not, but he all but promised he would.
“Do the people in this room like Sheriff Joe? So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” Trump said. “I'll make a prediction. I think he's going to be just fine. Okay? But, but I won't do it tonight because I don't want to cause any controversy. Is that okay? All right? But Sheriff Joe can feel good.”
There were plenty of other strange moments in the speech. “I always hear about the elites,” he boasted. “I went to better schools than they did, I was a better student than they were, I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment.” He seemed to misunderstand the meaning of the phrase clean coal, saying, “It's just been announced that a second, brand-new coal mine where they're going to take out clean coal, meaning they're taking out coal, they're going to clean it.” He shouted, “Antiiiiifa!” On and on Trump went, over nearly 80 minutes in a blazing hot arena.
During the course of his two-week exile from Washington, Trump parted ways with Steve Bannon, his chief strategist and the former head of his presidential campaign. Bannon, who has returned to his perch leading Breitbart, was seen as the chief exponent of white-nationalist politics and of a bellicose approach. But who needs him? The rally in Phoenix showed that Trump can hit those notes just fine even with Bannon out of the West Wing.
After Phoenix, Trump is headed to Reno, Nevada, before returning home to Washington. He’s got a full plate there: the threat of a shutdown over government spending, the possibility of both a shutdown and a catastrophic national default over the debt ceiling, and his own priorities of tax reform and Obamacare repeal still theoretically waiting in line. To get those things done, he’ll need help from Republicans in Congress. Instead, his rhetoric on Charlottesville has earned a rebuke even from non-confrontational Speaker Paul Ryan, and Trump isn’t even on speaking terms with McConnell. (According to the Times, a phone call between the men on August 9 erupted into a profane shout-fest, which helps explain Trump’s furious broadsides at McConnell on August 10.)
During the rally on Tuesday, Trump seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to let his rage loose in a crowd of adoring fans. That was the key ingredient to his campaign success, too. But seven months into his presidency, and despite the short vacation, Trump hasn’t figured out how to reconcile his brash campaign style with the actual demands of governing. Catharsis feels good, but it won’t pay the government’s bill, won’t pass key legislation, and won’t mend relations on Capitol Hill.
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