Some of the most uncontrolled moments in Donald Trump’s rallies come, for one reason or another, when he, with a piece of paper in hand, recites his own past statements. That was the case in December, 2015, when he read aloud his call for a complete and total ban on Muslims entering the United States, punctuating it with phrases like “What the hell is going on!” And it was the case at the Phoenix Convention Center on Tuesday night, in a performance that was, by turns, ranting, rambling, whining, bitter, and—given that the speaker is the President of the United States—frightening. Trump read excerpts from various remarks that he had made about the “Unite the Right” gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the violence that it had sparked. Perhaps reading his own turns of phrase just excites him—“The words are perfect!” he said at one point in Phoenix, with an expression of dazed appreciation. Or perhaps it serves him to regard himself in the third person, as a character for whom he can script any line—and any reality. (In Phoenix he said, of himself, “I don’t believe that any President has accomplished as much as this President.”) But recitation also seems to make it easier for him to summon up hate, particularly against other people who tell different stories about who Trump is and what he does.
In Phoenix, the entire arena, he said, was full of individuals who, like him, were opposed to hatred and violence. “But the very dishonest media, those people, up there, with all the cameras . . . and I mean truly dishonest people in the media and the fake media, they make up stories!” The crowd began to boo and chant “CNN sucks!” Trump, with an air of satisfaction, stepped away from the lectern to give them time to chant some more.
“I’m really doing this to show you how damned dishonest these people are,” he said. He then quoted the second set of remarks he had made about Charlottesville, on the Monday after the weekend of violence, in which (as the media honestly reported) he clearly, if belatedly, condemned extremist groups. “They were having a hard time with that one. Because I said everything. I hit them with ‘neo-Nazi,’ I hit them with everything!” It was striking that, for him, “neo-Nazi” had been reduced to a convenient instrument of self-justification, rather than a cause for questioning or concern. He held up the piece of paper that his words were written on, as further evidence of “hits.” “I got the ‘white supremacist,’ the ‘neo-Nazi,’ I got them all in there.” He squinted at his words and said, “Let’s see—yeah—‘K.K.K.’! We got ‘K.K.K.’ ”
He had less to say about his third statement about Charlottesville, which he made at a press conference last Tuesday, in which he blamed the counter-protesters for much of the trouble and said that the neo-Nazi and white-nationalist crowd contained many fine people who just didn’t want Robert E. Lee’s statue to come down. After a brief riff about how the jobs he was creating would solve America’s racial problems, Trump returned to attacking the media, which he now portrayed as a gang of treasonous liars.
“These are really, really dishonest people, and they’re bad people, and I really think they don’t like our country, I really believe that, and I don’t believe they’re going to change,” he said. A moment later, he added, “These are sick people. You know the thing I don’t understand? You would think that they’d want to make our country great again. And I honestly believe they don’t. I honestly believe that. If you want to discover the source of the division in our country, look no further than the fake news and the crooked media.” Glancing at the back of the hall, he claimed to see the networks turning off their cameras and their lights going out, one by one. This was a lie; the rally was still being broadcast. Indeed, it was such a blatant lie that Trump seemed to be using it to demand, from his supporters, something more than trust: they had to be willing to deny what they could see was true, and do it happily.
Trump spoke for seventy-five minutes, giving full voice to the flitting, self-obsessed, self-pitying, and openly deceitful qualities that typify his rhetoric. Eventually, he began talking about the state of West Virginia, which he suggested had turned into one big boomtown since his election. This led him to a scattershot of semi-sentences, like a free-association game: beautiful clean coal, West Virginia’s great governor, party-switching, American leaders, George Washington—and, with that name, a bell seemed to go off.
“George Washington—please don’t take his statue down! Ple-e-ease.” “No-o-o!” the crowd roared, apparently accepting Trump’s assertion, in his Tuesday press conference, that this would somehow be the consequence of taking down a statue of Lee. It was “sad,” Trump continued. “From Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt. I see they want to take Teddy Roosevelt down, too. They’re trying to figure out why—they don’t know. They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history. And our weak leaders—they do it overnight. These things have been there for a hundred and fifty years, for a hundred years—you go back to a university, and it’s gone. Weak, weak people.”
Who are the “they,” opposed to Trump’s “our”? “They” are the media, of course—“by the way, they are trying to take away our history and our heritage”—but the group is broader than that. It includes, apparently, anyone who doesn’t feel sentimental about statues of Robert E. Lee. And it most definitely includes immigrants, who were a particular target in the rally in Phoenix. Trump promised to build his wall; he said that he would be willing to provoke a government shutdown to do it. (If he is serious, this is a hazardous development; Congress will need to act, and Trump will need to sign legislation, to prevent a shutdown this fall.)
The crowd cheered again when he asked, “Do the people in this room like Sheriff Joe?,” meaning Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, and an icon of the anti-immigration movement, who is awaiting sentencing on charges stemming from his defiance of federal injunctions. There had been reports that Trump might use this appearance to announce a pardon of Arpaio; he didn’t quite, though he all but promised to, in terms that seemed designed to make the audience feel as if they were insiders, or co-conspirators: “I won’t do it tonight, because I don’t want to cause any controversy. Is that O.K., all right? But Sheriff Joe can feel good.” Trump added that he was carrying on the battle against Mexican cartels operating in the United States, which he portrayed as a foreign occupation by subhumans. “We are liberating towns!” he shouted. “These are animals.”
Earlier in the speech, after he had finished quoting himself on Charlottesville statements, Trump handed the sheets of his speech to the audience, as if they were relics. These people were with him. They weren’t like the “thugs” outside, or like the members of Congress who were holding him back. (He took time in the speech to deride Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, and, without mentioning their names, Arizona’s two Republican Senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, who, in various ways, had crossed him.) Then he began talking about what it meant to be Trump, in a riff that captured his gold-painted populism but was also jarringly disjointed:
You know, I was a good student. I always hear about the élite, you know the élite. They’re élite? I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student than they were. I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment—and I live in the White House, too. Which is really great. I think, you know what, I think we’re the élites.
He twirled his thumb, as if to draw the members of the crowd into the “we” of Trump. It was hard to know whether he saw them clearly, then or ever; he has not, on a policy level, done much for “hardworking Americans”—of any race. He had, in the course of the speech, asked if the audience remembered his campaign rallies, and the way that protesters were sometimes manhandled there. “Our people are tougher,” he said. “They’d send in thugs, and our people would protect ourselves.” He looked at the crowd. “See this room? You’re safe in this room. You’re very safe. It’s a big room.” It was Trump’s room—his safe space.