On Thursday night, speaking to an arena full of supporters in Cincinnati, Donald Trump delivered a tirade against his putative domestic enemies. The bitterness, gloating, and contempt in his remarks eclipsed anything spoken by previous presidents-elect. Cameras recorded Trump, but he spoke to the people in the room as though they were his only audience. He mocked the rest of America and celebrated its defeat.
We’ve seen this man before. He’s the man we saw and heard on the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape. He bonds with his fans, or with whoever’s around him, by demeaning you when you’re not there.
This wasn’t the speech Trump was supposed to give. Words about national unity appeared on his teleprompter, and he duly mouthed them. But the real Trump, as he has often said, isn’t in the script. It’s in his digressions. The “we” in the prepared text was Americans as a whole. But the “we” to whom Trump referred in his extended riffs were the people who had voted for him. Opposite these people, in the rest of the country, Trump described an array of villains, losers, and fools.
He began with the press. He pointed to the reporters in the room, called them liars, and paused to let the crowd boo them. In an echo of the Access Hollywood tape, he mocked a female journalist who, he said, had cried about his election. He took shots at Republican politicians who had failed to support him. But mostly, he reveled in his “landslide” defeat of Hillary Clinton and her supporters. “We did have a lot of fun fighting Hillary, didn’t we?” he asked. He broke into a smile as the crowd chanted, “Lock her up!” He touted his win in Utah over Clinton and Evan McMullin—“some guy I never even heard of”—who together had garnered more votes in that state than Trump had. “We trounced them! We trounced them!” Trump exulted. When protesters popped up, Trump jeered: “They don’t know that Hillary lost a couple of weeks ago!”
From the teleprompter, Trump read words of assurance to minorities. But in his riffs, he spoke of them as though they were a trophy. “The African American community was so great to me in this election,” he told the audience. “And the Hispanic community—I did great with the Hispanic community.” He claimed that the country was beset by a “crime wave” and that he would “never back down” in fighting it. But he saved his harshest words for Muslims and other Arabs, vowing to halt the immigration of people who were “pouring in from regions of the Middle East.”
Like politicians before him, Trump invoked patriotism to target dissenters. “If people burn the American flag, there should be a consequence,” he demanded. But he also suggested that what made America great in the eyes of the world wasn’t the flag or even the Constitution. What made America great was Trump himself:
Since our victory, I’ve spoken to many foreign leaders. … They all tell me how they sat in their magnificent rooms in different countries throughout the world—these are the leaders, the prime ministers, the presidents, all of them—how they sat in their magnificent rooms, watching in wonderment, and hearing how people came to vote that didn’t vote in 20 years … and they [the people] had Trump shirts on, and they had “Make America Great Again” hats on, and they had buttons pouring off. And they [the leaders] thought it was amazing. And honestly, one of them told me: “I truly respect the United States again because of what happened.”
What a remarkable statement. Trump had come to Cincinnati with a prepared text about uniting America to compete against other countries. Instead, he was telling his supporters that they—and he—had the partisan sympathy of governments abroad. A man who had been aided by Russia in gaining control of the United States government without winning even a plurality of American votes—and who had explicitly encouraged Russia’s help during his campaign—was holding a post-election rally to celebrate the defeat of his domestic opposition and to claim foreign support for his movement.
To anyone who has watched Trump’s post-election interview with 60 Minutes or read about his meeting with the New York Times, the speech in Cincinnati might seem bizarre. How could he pander to a room full of liberals and then, nine days later, pander to a room full of people who hate them? The question answers itself: Trump plays to the room. “I love this stuff,” he told the audience in Cincinnati as cheers rained down on his gloating. “Should I go on with this just a little bit longer? I love this.”
To Trump, politics is a game. It’s about ratings and building an audience, like The Apprentice. During his speech, he told this story about election night:
One of the announcers, I have to tell you, from ESPN—now, they cover football and boxing and everything, right? And he went out and he said, “I gotta tell you, that event last night”—meaning the election results—“was better than any fight, any baseball game, any football game.” He said, “That was the most exciting event I’ve ever seen.” And it was politics! And then you look at the NFL. … Their ratings were so far down. And you know what the reason was? This! Because this business [politics] is tougher than the NFL. It’s crazy. The people liked it. Their ratings were down 20 or 21 percent. And it was because of us. So we had a lot of fun. The bottom line is: We won. We won. We won big.
If Trump had lost the election as expected, he would have taken his audience with him on whatever venture suited him next. Instead, he won. But that didn’t make him presidential. He’s still an entertainer with an audience. He’s still a fragile little boy. Sometimes he’s obsequious or bitter or cruel. Sometimes he’s all three.
We heard it on the Access Hollywood tape, as Trump sucked up to Billy Bush. He talked crudely about women—“bitch,” “phony tits”—and bragged about molesting them. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump joked. “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
When the tape came out, Trump dismissed it as “locker-room talk.” But what you have to understand about Trump—what you see on that tape, in his meeting with the Times, and in the arena in Cincinnati—is that he’s always in the locker room. He’s always trying to endear himself to some people by insulting others. If you’re in the room, he’s your buddy. If you’re not, you’re just another pussy.
A man who thinks and lives this way can run a TV show. He can schmooze columnists or charm entertainment reporters. He can thrill a mob of adoring fans. But he can’t lead, govern, or even faithfully represent the United States of America. He doesn’t understand what it means to be united.