THE MORNING PLUM:
Were you deeply alarmed by President Trump’s performance in Arizona on Tuesday night? If so, that is understandable. Trump is getting worse. He rambled and ranted with abandon. He hinted that he will pardon Joe Arpaio. He escalated his attacks on the media, accusing them of misrepresenting his response to the violence in Charlottesville. Yet he also doubled down on his defense of Confederate monuments, claiming that “they” are trying to “take away our heritage and our history.” (Emphasis added.)
All of this appeared to signal a growing contempt for the rule of law and an increasing indifference to the health of our democracy and institutions, and to his own responsibilities and duty to the public to try to calm the antagonisms unleashed in Charlottesville’s aftermath. If anything, at this difficult moment of national introspection, Trump conspicuously sought to further inflame those antagonisms. Some reacted with deep panic: Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper labeled the speech “downright scary and disturbing,” adding: “I really question his ability to be — his fitness to be — in this office.”
But without minimizing the dangers that Trump still poses, it’s worth considering Trump’s act in a somewhat less alarming light, by comparing it with another, similar performance: Dustin Hoffman’s powerful depiction of the public deterioration of legendary political satirist and comedian Lenny Bruce, in the movie “Lenny.” And this hints at where this could — could — all end up.
It is true that Trump’s performance did energize the crowd at key moments, such as when he hinted that the Arpaio pardon is coming and when he attacked the media (“CNN sucks! CNN sucks!” chanted the crowd). But The Post’s Jenna Johnson captures another side of the audience’s reaction with this memorable description:
As the night dragged on, many in the crowd lost interest in what the president was saying.
Hundreds left early, while others plopped down on the ground, scrolled through their social media feeds or started up a conversation with their neighbors. After waiting for hours in 107-degree heat to get into the rally hall — where their water bottles were confiscated by security — people were tired and dehydrated and the president just wasn’t keeping their attention. Although Trump has long been the master of reading the mood of a room and quickly adjusting his message to satisfy as many of his fans as possible, his rage seemed to cloud his senses.
Obviously, the comparison between Trump and Lenny Bruce, as portrayed by Hoffman, is imperfect in all kinds of ways. But not in this one way. Bruce was arrested for various low-level charges, including obscenity and drug possession, and in the movie “Lenny,” Hoffman depicts Bruce’s later performances as public displays of increasing grievance, resentment and self-absorption over his legal plight, and deteriorating awareness of his audience.
In one of these, Bruce is muttering to himself unintelligibly as audience members shift uncomfortably and begin to leave. “Where you going?” Bruce says, despairingly. Then he slips into sardonic self-pity over his persecution for obscenity: “Hey, where you people going? Oh, come on, man! I haven’t even said [expletive depicting sexual act] yet!”
In another, Bruce is reading to his audience from documents involving his legal troubles, and he is so deep in the legal weeds (and in his self-absorption) that people again begin leaving. “Oh, come on, man!” Bruce says to the departing patrons. “Where you going? No, I don’t wanna do t––– and a––!”
There were hints of this sort of deterioration from Trump last night. There was the self-pity, the self-absorption, the outsize resentment and grievance. And it could get worse. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) reportedly has confided that he isn’t sure Trump’s presidency can be saved. Degenerating relations with congressional Republicans could imperil other pieces of his agenda, leading to more anger and frustration. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe continues, meaning more revelations lie ahead.
Last night, Trump actually read aloud from his previous comments on Charlottesville — just as Bruce did from his legal documents — to illustrate how unfair the media is being to him. It’s not hard to imagine the dynamic that Johnson describes above getting worse over time, with Trump increasingly wallowing in the details of his persecution while his audiences increasingly lose interest.
To be clear, Trump still commands immense control over the news cycle, which means he could very well turn things around. And whatever is to be on that front, I don’t want to minimize the dangers Trump still poses. It is horrifying that Trump continues to stoke racial division for what appear to be deeply cynical purposes (as former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon openly revealed to be the case). Trump may expand his deportation dragnet, and last night Trump threatened a government shutdown over his Mexican wall. This and the Arpaio pardon could maximize the ugliness. The attacks on the press could further erode public faith in the news media’s legitimate institutional role and could conceivably end in violence. An effort to remove Mueller remains a very real possibility. Trump controls our nuclear arsenal, and he still has not faced a full-blown crisis.
Meanwhile, The Trump Show — such as the one witnessed last night — poses a threat in another way, too. It is a distraction from all of the various damage the Trump administration is doing on the deregulatory front (which Matthew Yglesias summarizes here), and from his continued self-dealing and naked profiting off of the presidency, which is itself a serious threat to the future health of norms governing the conduct of our public officials.
But for all that, further deterioration into an increasingly buffoonish and self-absorbed figure (again, with apologies to Bruce for the imperfect comparison) also remains a possibility. Hoffman may not look the part, but it’s seductive to imagine an actor of his ability and depth playing it.
* TRUMP MAY FORCE SHUTDOWN TO GET HIS WALL: At the rally, Trump threatened to use the specter of a government shutdown to win funding for his wall on the Mexican border. Politico reports that this is his real intention:
Trump’s vow … mirrors private comments he has made to advisers in recent days … Trump has told his advisers he will not accept a deal on other issues without money for the wall “and it has to be real money,” said one senior White House official.
And recall, the White House is looking to use the “dreamers” as a bargaining chip as part of this effort. Get ready for a very ugly September.
* TRUMP RAGES AT MCCONNELL FOR NOT PROTECTING HIM: This New York Times piece got a lot of attention for reporting that Mitch McConnell privately doesn’t think the Trump presidency can be saved. But also note this, from a phone call in which Trump raged at him:
He was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation.
It’s hard to know what’s more amazing here: Trump’s conviction that Congress’s role is to protect him, or his belief that McConnell has let him down despite all that Republicans have done in this regard.
* GENERALS ARE PLAYING AN INCREASING ROLE: The Post has a nice look at the degree to which generals are now surrounding and influencing Trump. This, from former acting CIA chief John McLaughlin, is both instructive and worrying:
“This is the only time in modern presidential history when we’ve had a small number of people from the uniformed world hold this much influence over the chief executive. … They are right now playing an extraordinary role. …To some degree, Trump is playing president, and I think the whole idea of being able to command a group of warriors is deeply satisfying to him.”
Putting aside the legitimate debate over whether it is desirable for generals to have so much influence over an elected leader, that seems like a pretty accurate depiction of Trump’s mental state.
* ANOTHER POLL FINDS TRUMP’S APPROVAL IN THE TOILET: A new Politico-Morning Consult poll finds Trump’s approval rating has dropped to 39 percent, a low point in this poll. Note this, on Trump’s response to Charlottesville:
A 43 percent plurality of voters blame the white nationalist protesters most for the violence, but nearly as many, 36 percent, say both the white nationalists and the counterprotesters are equally to blame. …Among those who approve of Trump’s job performance, only 15 percent assign more blame to the white nationalists. Fifty-six percent of voters who approve of Trump’s job performance blame both groups equally, and another 15 percent blame the counterprotesters.
It is shocking, just shocking, that Trump supporters agree with him even when he is weakly condemning white supremacy.
* WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT JOE ARPAIO: With Trump suggesting he will, in fact, pardon Arpaio soon enough, Michelle Ye Hee Lee has a useful look at his whole history. Bottom line:
Arpaio’s agency employed systemic racism in the name of immigration enforcement, targeting Latino drivers and detaining them solely based on a suspicion that the driver may be in the United States illegally. He willfully rejected the order to stop these tactics, and is now convicted of criminal contempt. He was voted out of office, but left behind a controversial legacy at the cost of county taxpayers, who are now left with a legal bill of dozens of millions of dollars.
Sounds like Trump’s idea of a fine, upstanding fellow.
* ARPAIO IS NOT SURPRISED THAT TRUMP WILL PARDON HIM: Here’s Arpaio’s reaction to the great news:
Mr. Arpaio said he “wasn’t really surprised” to hear he would likely be pardoned. “I just know him,” Mr. Arpaio said of the president. “And even though everybody said he’s not going to talk about it — deep in my heart, I knew he was going to say something. I had no hints, but that’s who he is.”
Yes indeed — this is exactly who Trump is.
* AND HILLARY CLINTON REFLECTS ON TRUMP THE ‘CREEP’: “Morning Joe” is previewing excerpts from Hillary Clinton’s new memoir on the election, and here’s a choice one, concerning Trump’s space-invading tactics at the debates:
“Well, what would you do? Do you stay calm, keep smiling and carry on as if he weren’t repeatedly invading your space? Or do you turn, look him in the eye and say loudly and clearly: ‘Back up you creep, get away from me. I know you love to intimidate women, but you can’t intimate me, so back up.’”
Let’s not forget that Trump said this about the debate in question: “When she walked in front of me, believe me, I wasn’t impressed.”