Trump’s Message: His Critics Are the Crazy Ones
“Being Presidential is easy,” Donald Trump, who seems, in fact, to find it very hard, said to the crowd at a rally for his reëlection campaign in Dallas on Thursday night. “All you have to do is act like a stiff—look!” Trump stepped to the side of the rostrum, buttoned his suit jacket, and, like a mannequin in motion, returned to the microphone. Adopting a theatrically stentorian tone, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen of Texas, it is a great honor to be with you this evening.” The ladies and gentleman in the crowd cheered. Trump continued, in his own self-amazed voice, “And the media would love it! And everybody would be out of here so fast—you wouldn’t have come out here tonight, when it gets right down to it.”
Questions about Trump’s mental or emotional stability have been raised, with good cause, during the past week. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi described him as having a “meltdown” in a meeting in which he berated her as a “third-rate politician”; a letter he wrote to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of Turkey, in which he wrote as if the two of them were either fifth graders or black-hatted cowboys (or fifth graders playing cowboys) was released; and every revelation in the Ukraine scandal seemed to underscore that Trump is not only deploying wild conspiracy theories because they make for good campaign rhetoric but because he really believes some of them—and expects others to do the same. Doubts about whether he is entirely steady are not new, and Trump has long proffered various rationales for his troubling outbursts. One is that his erratic actions are tactical moves: unconventional” behavior that shakes up the political and diplomatic stiffs, and makes things happen. Another is that he is just being authentic, which raises the question of what he authentically is. But perhaps the most troubling rationale is one that he emphasized in Texas: he’s not crazy; anyone who doubts him is. His supporters just need to recognize the madness of his enemies, and everything he says will make sense.
“Nervous Nancy,” his previous moniker for Pelosi, was replaced by “Crazy Nancy,” who was leading a party that, in his telling, had lost touch with reality. “I really don’t believe any more that they love this country,” he said. In the impeachment hearings, Democrats had engaged in “outright fraud.” Speaking of the field of Democrats running to replace him, he said, “These people are crazy!” The evidence, he suggested, was in plain sight, even if only Trump and those who listened closely to him could see it. Describing Congressman Beto O’Rourke, of El Paso, he said, “remember the flailing arms?”—he offered what was meant to be an imitation of O’Rourke gesticulating as he spoke, retooling the movement as a symptom of some undefined disorder—“No one noticed; I noticed it—the Flailer!”
Members of the media were trying to hide the truth, but, he told the crowd, they had failed “because they had stupid people saying horrible things about us. Stupid. Stupid people. They are stupid people.” Perhaps no one could be trusted. Wasn’t it easy, after all, for Trump to strike a pose as a serious politician? Who was to say that every politician wasn’t pretending in exactly the same way?
It helps, in making this argument, to pretend that your opponents have said things that they haven’t. “Every major Democrat running for President wants to abolish all production of oil and natural gas,” Trump said. This is not true, but he continued, “I think they want to go to windmills—windmills, you know”—he leaned back and twirled his hand in the air, as if there was a relation between wind power and disco, and adopted another set of fake voices:’“ ‘Darling, I want to watch Trump speak tonight’; ‘We can’t, darling, the wind isn’t blowing!” ” That is not how wind turbines, which can store power, work. It’s also a standard Trump line. At his rally in Lake Charles, Louisiana, last week, the problem was that the wind-addicted couple couldn’t “watch L.S.U. and Florida”—Louisiana State’s football team was set to play the Florida Gators that Saturday. (L.S.U. won, 42-28; in a gubernatorial election in Louisiana on the same day as the game, the state’s Democratic governor had received less than fifty per cent of the vote, forcing a run-off. Trump had invited the top two Republican contenders to come on stage with him at the rally.) But the default, in Trump’s mind, is that people will always want to watch Trump speak.
Trump urged the crowd to join him in merging the many storylines into one: “The same people pushing us to fight endless wars overseas want us to open our borders to mass migration from these war-torn and terror afflicted regions. Their policies would import terrorism right on to our shores with American-issues visas—oh, isn’t that wonderful!” he said. “And by the way, the Democrats want open borders—they want everybody to flow in, they want those caravans to flow in.” It would all make sense if voters thought about things his way: “Use your heads: they’re not sending their finest.”
Recent events in Syria are a stark reminder of why none of this is funny, and of the wild harm done by the President’s misperceptions of the world. The day of the Dallas rally, Vice-President Mike Pence had met with Erdoğan—in the video of the meeting, Pence’s posture and expression are, as it happens, much like those in Trump’s imitation of political seriousness. That is not to say that Pence actually comes across as Presidential; he, too, appears to be playing a role that is beyond his abilities to truly inhabit. Afterward, Pence announced that Turkey had agreed to a ceasefire in Syria had been brokered; it mostly involved giving the Kurds near the Turkish border a chance to abandon their positions and flee, and, as of Friday, did not appear to be holding. No matter; a few hours before the Texas rally, Trump tweeted, “This is a great day for civilization. I am proud of the United States for sticking by me in following a necessary, but somewhat unconventional, path. People have been trying to make this ‘Deal’ for many years. Millions of lives will be saved. Congratulations to ALL!”
Had Trump really thought that, absent this deal, “millions of lives” would have been lost—and proceeded with his previous course of action, which included walking away from the Kurds, anyway? What on earth is his definition of “civilization”? When he said that he was proud of “the United States for sticking by me,” did he forget that many members of Congress and Senators from his own party had turned on him regarding Syria—or was he just proud that, despite their dismay at the abandonment of the Kurds, he made it to Thursday without any of them also calling for his impeachment? And who is he ever really congratulating, other than himself?
Trump, in Dallas, didn’t quite answer those questions. Speaking of Turkey and the Kurds, he again argued that he was just being “unconventional” and engaging in “tough love.” Sometimes, he said, “you have to let them fight—like two kids in a lot.” He added, “Now all of a sudden they’re fighting, and it’s not fun having bullets go all over the place.” People in Syria were already well aware that having bullets fly is not fun. They have reason to fear a President whose understanding of their lives appears to be rooted in a boyish fantasy. And so do the American people.