What Trump Knows (apropos of Korea, Putin, and Charlottesville)

August 17, 2017

Donald Trump is a little man who knows one big thing: the power of political rhetoric lies in not sounding like other politicians. He is not the first to understand this—Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 1992 by playing against (1980s Democratic) type—but few have honed the tool to such perfection.

During the presidential campaign, this furthered two goals. First, by saying what no other Republican candidate would (that the Iraq War was a disaster), or even what no decent American would (that John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured), Trump could signal that he was not a typical politician. Second, he could convey to key constituencies that he would provide more than lip service to their causes. Unseemly to release a list of potential Supreme Court nominees? Unheard of to attack a federal judge for his ethnic heritage? Unprecedented to call for a ban on entry into the country based on religion? Well, that was precisely the point.

As the saying goes, once you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. And so three times in the past five days Trump has gone out of his way to sound unpresidential. On Tuesday, responding to an escalating crisis with North Korea, he seemingly threatened a nuclear attack with his "fire and fury" comments. On Thursday, he responded to Vladimir Putin's order that the U.S. slash its embassy and consulate staff by expressing gratitude, saying that "we're trying to cut down on payroll." And today, after white nationalists brought bigotry and violence to Charlottesville, Virgina, Trump condemned the "hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides—on many sides" (emphasis in the original: watch the video).

In each case, Trump left just enough room that one could explain away his comments, if so desired. "Fire and fury like the world has never seen" need not actually refer to nuclear weapons. He might have just been joking when he thanked Putin for helping the U.S. government to save money. And he did tweet that "We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for."

Nonetheless, those accustomed to norms of presidential rhetoric heard the discordant notes in Trump's speech—and if they didn't, the media let them know. And so Trump signaled to his base that he is "tough," even if the North Korean leadership may be getting a different message. Simultaneously, he assured Putin that he is "understanding," for reasons that Bob Mueller is presumably investigating. And to white supremacists…well, just read what the white supremacist website Daily Stormer had to say: "Trump's comments were good. He didn't attack us. He just said the nation should come together…When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him."

My guess is that Trump will eventually say something approximately like the right thing about Charlottesville, as when during the presidential campaign he eventually disavowed former KKK leader David Duke (who said Friday in Charlottesville that "We're going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump" to "take our country back"). This will constitute renewed permission not to break with the president, for those who desire that. But he will have already made his allegiances clear.