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The Secrets to Trump’s Tonal Whiplash

After a raucous rally in Phoenix on Tuesday, filled with blatant dishonesty and attacks on the press and Republican officeholders, Donald Trump was set to speak to the American Legion in Reno, Nevada, on Wednesday. But anyone tuning in expecting to see the president come out with guns blazing was instead treated to a snoozefest: a workmanlike, respectful, even dull speech, appropriate to the occasion.

The divergence between the two appearances was so great that both The Washington Post and The New York Times spotlit it in stories Thursday morning. The Post’s Phil Rucker put the matter in terms of Trump’s former line of work: “Like a contestant on one of his reality TV shows, Trump has taken on contrasting personas, showcasing divergent traits with flourishes seemingly to survive another day of his beleaguered presidency. Or, as Trump the television producer might put it, to keep up the ratings.”

Needless to say, the president could not resist the chance to weigh in on the pair of stories:

It’s interesting to see Trump describe himself this way, because although he is widely believed to think hard about projecting a persona (or personas), he is rarely self-reflective in public.

The president is surely right that different settings call for different types of remarks, and that a campaign rally and a speech to a veterans’ organization demand different approaches. But that doesn’t really get very far. Trump has often shown utter tone deafness about what kinds of remarks are appropriate, for example in turning an appearance at the CIA into a political rally, or whining about his harsh treatment at the hands of the press during a commencement speech at the Coast Guard Academy.

Rucker’s reality-TV analogy, though seductive, doesn’t explain everything either. While Trump cares deeply about ratings, his most outrageous comments come at times when he appears to lose control of his emotions, rather than at intervals calculated to produce a story arc.

Instead, the difference between Trump’s behavior on various occasions seems to come down to two major factors: What was his last public appearance like? And does he stick to the teleprompter or not?

The president has established a pattern in his recent appearances of bouncing back and forth between sober statements, generally read directly from the page, and wild ones, generally improvised. Consider the record. On August 12, the day of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump made a statement that deplored violence “on all sides,” and which was widely condemned. While Trump spoke with a grim face, it was in fact improvising, free-wheeling Trump. Politico reported that Trump had a more typical response written out, but instead of reading it aloud, “the president veered from those prepared remarks.”

Following the pattern, we’d expect the next statement to be both restrained and tightly on script. In fact, under intense pressure, the president on August 14 made another statement—a straightforward condemnation of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis and a statement that “racism is evil.” Those remarks were ploddingly read straight from the page.

Then came August 15. Having been sober and on-script the day before, Trump was freewheeling and speaking for himself, and it went poorly. The president attempted to split hairs, arguing that while the Klan and white nationalists were bad, some of those who marched alongside them were “fine people.”

The pattern continues. On Monday, Trump delivered his speech about Afghanistan strategy, and while it was notably light on strategy, he’d lowered expectations far enough with his embrace of white supremacy that he won some praise for simply sticking to his written remarks and delivering another workmanlike, unremarkable address.

That set up the Tuesday debacle in Phoenix. Trump started out reading from prepared remarks, and the tone at the start of his rally stressed the need for unity and conciliation. Then he decided to freelance and speak for himself, and the remarks went off the rails, with blatant falsehoods, the suggestion that journalists are traitors, and attacks on Republican senators. As a result, it’s no surprise that the following day in Reno he was on script and lowkey.

Trump’s description of what happened in Phoenix as “enthusiastic, dynamic, and fun” is both telling and distressing. He mocks Democrats for having no leaders who can modulate tones, and while it’s true that Hillary Clinton (for example) was not the most dynamic speaker, there was another recent Democrat who was pretty good at that: Barack Obama. (Trump surely remembers him, because Thursday morning he also retweeted a meme of himself eclipsing Obama.) The difference is that when Obama got loose and went off script at campaign rallies, he sang Al Green classics. Trump’s idea of “enthusiastic” and “fun” consists of accusing people of treason and telling outright lies.

The problem is that he is always the president—whether he’s going off script at a campaign rally, or reading prepared remarks in a formal setting. No one begrudges politicians a looser feel on the stump; the objections are to the content rather than the vibe. When Trump was a frequent guest on Howard Stern’s show, making things up and lodging wild accusations wasn’t just acceptable but encouraged—but there’s no setting in which it’s OK for the leader of the free world to do that. Trump can grasp the gravity of speaking to American veterans, but he still can’t grasp the gravity of being president of the United States.


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