President Donald Trump thought about calling off his Saturday-night campaign rally in Murphysboro, Illinois, to mourn and honor those who lost their lives that morning at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. In the end, Trump went ahead with the event, denouncing anti-Semitism and urging the death penalty for the alleged gunman.
“We can’t make these sick, demented, evil people important [by] changing around our lives and schedules,” the president said, to applause. He drew a parallel between holding the rally and how his friend Dick Grasso, he said, had insisted on opening the New York Stock Exchange the day after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But that hadn’t happened—the exchange had closed for three trading days and a weekend after airliners loaded with passengers had flown into the World Trade Center towers. Trading reopened on Monday, September 17.
So Trump might have waited to reopen the midterm campaign. But he decided to carry on after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue left 11 dead in what the Anti-Defamation League said was most likely the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
After his slightly downbeat opening, Trump, obviously reacting to the shootings, told the faithful, “If you don’t mind, I’m going to tone it down just a little bit. Is that okay?” His loud supporters cheered in disapproval, as if to say they had come to a boxing match to see boxing, not arm wrestling. But Trump didn’t disappoint.
He loudly criticized Democrats and said that if Hillary Clinton had won, the United States might have been irretrievably lost. When the crowd booed and chanted, “Lock her up,” he stayed silent, mouth closed and lips pursed. What restraint!
Then he moved onto another favorite target, Nancy Pelosi, and told those in the audience they needed to vote in the midterms so she wouldn’t become House speaker (for a second time).
Then, after indirectly calling himself “the greatest conservative of all time,” Trump turned to his critics on the right, even though they are, he said, a small minority. “You have the haters, and they continue to hate,” he said. “They are foolish and very stupid people, very stupid.” The president called out Bill Kristol, the conservative columnist, mimicking his voice and mocking his predictions. He questioned why “losers” like Kristol are put on television.
When his palaverous oration made its way to the Obama administration, he remembered that he’d promised to tone things down, and smiled. “I’m going to be nice,” he said, forgoing the easy insult. But when it came to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a fierce critic and likely 2020 challenger, he couldn’t pull back when someone in the crowd yelled “Pocahontas,” his derisive name for her.
“No, we can’t use Pocahontas anymore. She’s got no Indian blood,” he said, referring inaccurately to a DNA test Warren recently released that established she likely had, as she had claimed, a Native American ancestor. “I can’t call her Pocahontas anymore, but I think I will anyway. Do you mind?”
The crowd shouted back. It did not mind. It liked hearing Trump call Warren Pocahontas quite a bit. It loved hearing him criticize opponents. The approving cheers quieted whenever he would briefly touch on policy, except for immigration, the topic that drew the most noise. Much more engaging was his tough talk and personal attacks that have gotten him in trouble with people who care about norms of political discourse, but that have thrilled his supporters. They loved it all. And whatever anyone else in America may have thought about the appropriateness of the proceedings, the crowd seemed very glad Trump hadn’t called off the whole thing.