The President’s television producer’s eye leads him to seek dramatic tableaus that create his preferred image of himself — strong, defiant, tearing down establishment structures and trampling the normal etiquette of the presidency.
But his recent attempts to create arresting political imagery appear to be backfiring.
In the most recent example on Saturday, Trump’s attempt to wrap himself in the power and prestige of the military failed at a West Point graduation ceremony apparently put on for his benefit, when his creeping walk down a ramp triggered so much social media mockery that he felt the need to explain it in a tweet of his own.
And for all his tweets about law and order, he didn’t weigh in on the latest apparent incident of police brutality — the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks in the back in Atlanta, which led to the resignation of the city’s police chief — while secluded at his New Jersey golf resort for much of the weekend.
The President’s now notorious march to an iconic church in Washington, DC’s Lafayette Square, after protesters were forcibly ejected, was meant to project strength to his supporters, but turned into an emblem of his mismanagement of the George Floyd protests and severely strained his relationship with current and former military brass. A high iron fence erected around the White House then turned into a symbol of the President’s disconnect with changes sweeping the nation. Trump’s instincts throughout the aftermath of Floyd’s death with a police officer’s knee on his neck have been to leverage the situation to advance his own political prospects — rather than to cool tensions and seek national reconciliation. Over the weekend, for instance, he pounced on Major League Soccer’s policy of backing the rights of its players to protest during the National Anthem.
“And it looks like the NFL is heading in that direction also, but not with me watching,” the President tweeted. Trump has long exploited the controversy over players taking a knee to protest police brutality to create a culture war issue to appeal to his supporters. But there is the possibility that when NFL games resume, his choice to escalate could turn against the President if more and more players take a knee and reflect a nation that is increasingly willing to reconsider some of its attitudes on race.
Back on the campaign trail
This week, the President will return to the campaign trail, holding a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday night — despite fears that an indoor arena event with the kind of huge crowd that is banned from sporting events will cause a spike in infections of the novel coronavirus. The initial plan was to have the rally on Friday. But the decision to coincide with Juneteenth, a holiday marking the end of slavery, served to emphasize the President’s tone deafness on race. And instead of leading on the issue, the President is behind — with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers working on police reform and with major changes to the practice of law enforcement being ordered by states and city mayors.
Trump’s rallies, a striking example of political performance art, are far more important to him than they might be to a conventional politician. Not only do they give the President the center stage chance to bask in the adulation of a crowd, they also in many ways define his wild presidency, and give an impression that Trump is marshaling a massive anti-Washington political movement.
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Trump has plans for more rallies in Arizona, Texas and Florida — states where the virus is fast rising again after early economic openings that he demanded. The events will likely focus attention on his denial about the pandemic and inaccurate judgment that the United States has “prevailed” over the crisis.
His ostentatious refusal to wear a mask, meanwhile, is undercutting his own government’s message that face coverings could significantly slow the spread of the coronavirus and actually accelerate a resumption of normal life. US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams on Sunday undermined Trump’s implied argument that government-mandated changes of social behavior to deal with the virus are an infringement on the basic rights of Americans. “Some feel face coverings infringe on their freedom of choice — but if more wear them, we’ll have MORE freedom to go out,” Adams wrote on Twitter.
In many ways, Trump’s presidency is a series of interconnected and choreographed moments, from his summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, which have done nothing to convince the isolated state to quit its nuclear drive, to staged announcements like a recent decision to quit the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic. Critics saw that decision as an attempt to deflect blame for his own failings in fighting a virus that he long insisted would not be a problem for the US and has now killed more than 115,000 Americans.
This was the case, for instance, when he visited France in 2017 as a guest of honor at the country’s Bastille Day parade and returned home determined to stage his own spectacular with himself as the centerpiece. The event eventually materialized into a hugely controversial celebration on July 4 last year that pleased his supporters but alienated millions of Americans by politicizing patriotism and raised grave questions about the President’s use of the military as a political prop.
One of the key questions of November’s election will be whether the message that the President is sending to his supporters — and to middle-of-the-road swing voters — with his brazen showmanship will be sufficient to assemble a winning coalition or could end up turning more voters against him.
Trump fires back about ramp walk
The President and his reelection campaign have spent months trying to portray Democrat Joe Biden as infirm and mentally and physically unfit for the rigors of the presidency.
But the White House has refused to be upfront about the President’s own health, including a mysterious and unplanned visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last November.
And when critics raised questions about Trump’s slow walk down the ramp at West Point, he couldn’t handle it.
The President, who turned 74 on Sunday, fired back on Twitter with his own narrative about what happened, which only served to amplify the moment.
“The ramp that I descended after my West Point Commencement speech was very long & steep, had no handrail and, most importantly, was very slippery. The last thing I was going to do is “fall” for the Fake News to have fun with. Final ten feet I ran down to level ground. Momentum!” the President wrote in a tweet early on Sunday morning.
The West Point graduation went ahead even though the cadets had been taking part in online learning since March since the academy is in New York, one of the hardest-hit areas during the pandemic.
The President made clear back in April that he planned to attend the graduation in person, despite critics warning that he was putting cadets at risk as they were called back for the socially-distanced event.
Ahead of his campaign rally in Tulsa on Saturday, attendees are required to sign a waiver pledging that they will not sue the President’s campaign if they contract the virus, a situation that has sparked criticism that Trump is putting people — rally goers and the people they will meet in the community — at risk to further his own political requirements.