President Trump made a morally disturbing and politically divisive series of statements yesterday about last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville at what was supposed to be a press briefing on his plans for infrastructure investments. By now, most public officials have felt compelled to weigh in on his shocking self-identification with neo-Confederate efforts to protect monuments to slavery and Jim Crow, and his suggestion that counterprotesters in Charlottesville had as much or more to do with the breakdown in law and order as the motley crew of white supremacists who started the whole thing. As my colleague Margaret Hartmann explained, members of Trump’s own party split between those who flatly repudiated him, those who defended him, and those who pretended he didn’t say what he said.
But beyond the demerits of Trump’s rambling argument, his outburst showed a president who is literally incorrigible, unable to rein in his worst impulses even after a period of reflection and despite the best efforts of the vast number of people advising him. As the New York Times reported:
Venting, his face red as he personally executed the defense of his own actions that no one else would, Mr. Trump all but erased any good will he had earned Monday when he named racist groups and called them “repugnant to everything we hold dear.”
His largely unprovoked presidential rant on Tuesday instantly sparked an even more intense critique, especially from Republicans.
Yes, the president has shattered all normal expectations about presidential behavior and has gloried in defying “political correctness.” But there’s something new and worrisome about this latest incident. Michael Crowley put his finger on it today:
It was a Trump familiar to those who followed his wildly unorthodox campaign, but one rarely on display since his election — unpredictable and politically incorrect to a degree unseen since his visit to the Central Intelligence Agency a day after he was sworn in, when he raged at the media over reports about the crowd size at his inauguration.
Trump-watchers have finally stopped looking for signs that he’s going to “pivot” into becoming a president like most of the previous 44 (though he does greatly resemble Andrew Johnson). But if he’s capable of backtracking into self-destructive and grossly divisive behavior almost immediately after being steered away from a palpably damaging statement, it is hard to discern any bright normative lines he might respect.
It is also difficult after this performance to harvest any misapprehension that Trump is just playing the fool to manipulate public opinion. There is no sense in which there is a popular majority for the causes he now seems to be defending, and it’s not like the neo-Confederate right is going to find itself another national political champion.
No, it is increasingly clear that with Donald J. Trump, what you see is what you get, and what we got in this presser gone mad was Archie Bunker on paranoia-inducing steroids. By contrast, his remarks on Monday condemning the white riot in Charlottesville looked forced, like a statement made as part of a plea bargain. The minute he had a chance, as stunned aides stood by, he set us straight.
It is going to be a very long three-and-a-half years, and if Trump runs for reelection after incidents like this one, his slogan might as well be “Make America Hate Again.”