Trump Cares About Only One Audience

He’s a master of reading a room—and he knows exactly how to use cultural context as a provocation.

Editor’s Note: This article is one of 50 in a series about Trump's first two years as president.

President Donald Trump took the stage in Southaven, Mississippi, for a campaign rally on October 2, 2018, at a fraught moment in American politics. Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, had been accused of committing sexual assault as a teenager, and his nomination now appeared to be in peril. The confirmation battle had consumed the country, the national temperature was running hot—and everyone was waiting to hear what the president would say.

Republicans on Capitol Hill had been trying to tread lightly with Kavanaugh’s most prominent accuser, Christine Blasey Ford—inviting her to testify in the Senate and mostly refraining from personal attacks on her character. Trump had grudgingly gone along with this strategy of restraint. But gazing out at a roaring crowd of red-capped superfans that October evening, he just couldn’t help himself.

His voice dripping with contempt, Trump began ridiculing Ford’s memory of the alleged assault—even going so far as to imitate her testimony: “How did you get home? I don’t remember. How’d you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. What neighborhood was it in? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs, downstairs, where was it? I don’t know. But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember.

The crowd erupted in delight.

“A man’s life is shattered,” Trump went on, lamenting the damage to Kavanaugh’s reputation. “His wife is shattered.” The people championing Ford, he declared, were “really evil people.”

From the very beginning of his presidential bid, Trump’s campaign events have had a certain carnival-like quality, with stump speeches that are part talk-radio tirade, part insult-comedy routine. The shtick was outlandish even for an upstart candidate. But whereas most presidents tend to mute their rhetoric once they reach the Oval Office, Trump has only turned up the volume as president. To watch his rallies throughout the 2018 midterm campaign was to feel as though anything might happen. Maybe he would tee off on supposedly unpatriotic football players. Maybe he would debut a new taunting nickname for a Democratic politician. Maybe he would pull Sean Hannity onto the stage.

Still, even by these standards, Trump’s Southaven performance was astonishing: During the efflorescence of the #MeToo movement, here was the president of the United States derisively mocking a reluctantly testifying private citizen who said that she’d been sexually assaulted, a woman whose testimony even many Kavanaugh defenders conceded seemed credible (even if, they said, she was misremembering who her assaulter had been). As the audience roared its support, Trump once again demonstrated his preternatural ability to read a room and rile a crowd—and his willingness to say things that most other people, to say nothing of most other presidents, would be chary to express in polite company.