President Trump led an incendiary rally at which he ripped at cultural divides, played to white grievance, defended himself by stretching the truth or leaving out key facts, attacked members of his own party and the media, played the victim and threatened apocalyptic political consequences — all the while doing so by ignoring political norms and sensitivities.
The only thing that’s surprising is if you’re surprised by it.
Trump held these kinds of rallies and made these kinds of comments repeatedly throughout the campaign. And even did so in Arizona. Remember back in August of last year when he flew to Mexico to meet with the Mexican president, where he was restrained and deferential, and then held a raucous rally later that day in Arizona?
Granted, Trump’s actions Tuesday night stand in stark relief from his sober, scripted speech about Afghanistan just a day earlier. He did not deliver specifics on how to fight that war, but his rhetoric suggested to some that a change might be afoot.
There isn’t. And the best bet is there never will be.
On Tuesday night, as NPR White House reporter Geoff Bennett said on Morning Edition‘s Up First podcast, Trump was a “guy settling scores” who believes “every crowd deserves a show.”
To recap, here’s some of what Trump did and said Tuesday night:
Defended his Charlottesville response and did so in a misleading way. He read from his original statement Saturday, Aug. 12, the part about denouncing hate and bigotry. He left out the next few, critical words — “on many sides.” That’s what caused the controversy.
Played to white grievance. “They’re trying to take away our culture,” Trump said of activists calling for the removal of Confederate statues. “They’re trying to take away our history. And our weak leaders, they do it overnight. These things have been there for 150 years, for 100 years. You go back to a university, and it’s gone. Weak, weak people.”
Teased a potential pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. There was some early speculation going into Tuesday night that Trump could pardon Arpaio at his rally. (Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt for violating a court order by illegally detaining immigrants who did not have legal status.) The White House said before the rally that he would not pardon him there, but the president then went ahead and heavily teased that a pardon might be forthcoming. “So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” Trump asked, whooping up the crowd. “You know what, I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine. OK? But I won’t do it tonight, because I don’t want to cause any controversy. But Sheriff Joe should feel good.”
Played the victim. He used his partial statement on Charlottesville as a way to show himself as the ongoing victim of the “fake news” media. “[T]hey’re bad people,” Trump contended of the press. “And I really think they don’t like our country.” In a series of tweets Wednesday morning responding to coverage of the Phoenix rally, CNN journalist Sara Murray said journalists “can hold our leaders accountable and still love our country. And we do.”
Criticized fellow Republicans. He never said their names, but it was clear Trump was criticizing Arizona’s Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake. He noted that the Senate was “one vote away” from passing a health care bill. That prompted the crowd to chants of “McCain must go.” McCain, of course, is suffering from a deadly form of brain cancer. He was the deciding vote on the health care bill, voting against it last month. Flake has written a book criticizing Trump and the GOP’s response to him. “Nobody knows who the hell he is,” Trump said of Flake. Trump also tweeted support of Flake’s primary opponent, signaling a potentially very messy primary process in the spring of next year and into the summer of 2018. If Trump winds up endorsing several primary opponents to GOP incumbents, that would further splinter the relationship between Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader.
Threatened a government shutdown over the border wall. Perhaps the most potentially consequential thing Trump said Tuesday night was threatening a government shutdown if his border wall is not funded. There are no indications the wall will be funded to the extent he wants (and Mexico’s not paying for it). The question is whether Trump sticks to the threat, accepts some half-loaf version of what he’s asking for or if it’s just all bluster.
Speaking Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said, “I don’t think a government shutdown is necessary and I don’t think most people want to see a government shutdown.” Ryan added that the House had already passed funding for border security including building a border wall.
Trump’s comments at this rally should stop the narrative that Trump will or can change. Think of this a little differently — that Trump, in fact, has been remarkably consistent.
Consider: There has been a usual pattern. Here’s how it has gone — Trump says something attention-grabbing, outrageous or controversial. He gets lots of negative attention and criticism for it. Then, he adjusts and does something more on-script. The criticism dies down and people think maybe he is changing (“pivoting”) and becoming more “presidential.” And then he undercuts that with a tweet or rally soon after.
There’s no reason to think that pattern will change. It’s more likely he will continue to test the limits of provocation.
So we have learned a lot about Trump throughout the campaign and during his presidency. He is:
Culturally divisive and inflammatory. The country is at a demographic crossroads, and polling suggests there are plenty of people who are bothered by how the country is changing. Trump picked up on that and ran with it. When his back is against the wall, it’s something he is likely to come back to again and again.
Someone who stretches the truth. There were plenty of things Trump said during the rally in Arizona that weren’t quite true or were misleading. In addition to leaving out the full context that would have included his “many sides” remark, he also said, falsely, as PolitiFact points out, that CNN’s ratings have gone down, that wages haven’t gone up, that the media don’t show images of his crowds, that there’s been a “historic increase in defense spending,” that border apprehensions are down 78 to 80 percent and on and on. The Washington Post this week noted that Trump has now surpassed more than 1,000 falsehoods as president.
Not loyal, except maybe to his family. Trump is all about Trump. Look at how he has dealt with his White House and administration. He nearly threw Attorney General Jeff Sessions under the bus, for example, threatening his job on Twitter — and Sessions was one of Trump’s earliest supporters and was behind Trump when no one else in the Senate would back him.
Someone who brings a bazooka to a knife fight. Trump is a counterpuncher. But he not only lets almost no insult go unanswered — he goes to war. Trump repeatedly belittled his primary opponents; in the general election, two days after the Access Hollywood tape was released, Trump responded by holding a news conference with women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct — moments before a presidential debate; and as president, instead of ignoring criticism from cable-news hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, he took to Twitter to call Scarborough “Psycho Joe,” Brzezinski “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” whom he denied a stay at Mar-a-Lago when she was “bleeding badly from a face-lift.”
The White House defended the president after the Brzezinski remarks. “I don’t think that the president’s ever been someone who gets attacked and doesn’t push back,” now-press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Fox in June. “There have been an outrageous number of personal attacks, not just to him, but to frankly everyone around him. This is a president who fights fire with fire.”
Someone who is sensitive to criticism, plays the victim and blames the media. Perhaps the best explanation for why Trump dug in on Charlottesville is the implication that he is to blame for boosting white nationalism. Trump feels that no matter what he does, it will never be good enough and that the media seize on the worst possible narratives about him. For example, denouncing bigotry and hate, but “many sides” becoming the story. Or when he did denounce the KKK and neo-Nazis, his sincerity and timing were questioned. It has become almost cliché for Trump to call the mainstream media “fake news.” Media criticism is Trump’s crutch. And there’s nothing more unifying for a divided team than the perception of a common enemy.
So … are you finally ready to accept Trump for who he is? The fact is, he’s 71 and unlikely to fundamentally change.