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On Monday night, after President Donald J. Trump delivered a speech on Afghanistan, Philip Rucker, the Washington Post’s bureau chief for the White House, wrote on Twitter that he saw in that address “a new President Trump: Acknowledging a flip-flop and talking about gravity of office, history & substance.” Here was the long-awaited pivot to presidential behavior many had sought from Trump.
Then came Tuesday.
On Tuesday evening, Trump came to Phoenix, Arizona, for a campaign rally, disregarding the calls by many—including that city’s mayor, Greg Stanton—to stay away. Speaking for more than an hour to a large and friendly crowd, Trump complained about the media, taunted liberal protesters and maligned Arizona’s two senators, both of whom are Republicans. In place of compassion, he showed selfishness. In place of seriousness, petulance.
In doing so, Trump proved definitively that he has no interest in being presidential, and that while he enjoys the spectacle that is the campaign trail, he has little use for the trappings of the presidency itself. As with previous “pivots,” this one lasted all of 24 hours.
Trump wanted the blazing Southwestern sun to dispel the gloom that has settled over his presidency, largely because of Trump’s own lack of discipline. His troubling response to the extremist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, which claimed three lives, led to denunciations by congressional Republicans and the dissolution of corporate advisory councils. Supporters feared that the Phoenix rally would only further inflame tensions, in particular if he pardoned former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who’d recently been convicted of contempt of court charges, stemming from policing practices that were deemed discriminatory of Latinos.
Trump didn’t pardon Arpaio, though he strongly suggested he would do so shortly. But he also showed no willingness to unite the nation or offer the kind of healing message one expects from the president at a time of tragedy. Instead, he railed against the “truly dishonest people” in the media, who he said misrepresented his three statements on Charlottesville, two of which suggested leftists counter-protesters were as responsible as white nationalists for the violence that took place there last weekend.
Trump also noted that he has a residence in Charlottesville.
Speaking about Charlottesville at length, Trump showed little solemnity, nor any evident understanding of how deeply that event has shaken the nation. His primary concern was the media’s treatment of Trump himself. He lamented CNN’s firing of Jeffrey Lord, a conservative commentator who’d used a Nazi slogan on Twitter. Only later, and in passing, did the president mention Heather Heyer, the young woman killed by a white nationalist in Charlottesville.
And while a campaign rally is by definition a nakedly political event, it’s hard to imagine another sitting president engaging in such unseemly, divisive rhetoric. At one point, he had the crowd chanting “CNN sucks,” to his obvious pleasure.
“I think we’re the elite, they’re not the elite,” he said during the extended anti-media diatribe. He also claimed that he “went to better schools than they did” and mocked ABC News host George Stephanopoulos for his diminutive size. The president complained that cameras had been turned off during his speech. That was not true.
While the rally may have heartened Trump's base, it could not have done much to expand his support. Trump has apparently come to believe that he can win reelection by solely appealing to disenfranchised working-class whites. This is a view shared by his chief political strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who left his post at the White House last week.
“They are trying to take away our history and our heritage,” Trump said, clearly indicating that his sympathies lay with those who want Confederate statuary preserved. He also promised to “recapture our dynasty,” a vague phrase that could be interpreted as having white nationalist overtones.
Despite his denunciations of the media, the Republican establishment and other supposed members of the ruling elite, Trump returns to Washington this week an increasingly isolated figure, with virtually no accomplishments to his name and little interest in crafting the kinds of compromises that might give him desperately sought “wins.”
“Not my president,” went the cry of the anti-Trump resistance in the days following his election last November. Increasingly, Trump seems to agree. While he is happy pandering to his base with nativist rhetoric and racial grievance, governing all Americans just isn't his thing.
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