Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
On Saturday night, President Trump hosted a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Michael D'Antonio: The rally was a return to what Trump does best -- creating an entertaining spectacle that distracts from promises he hasn't fulfilled
Having failed, at least so far, to deliver on his promises on healthcare, a border wall and tax cuts, President Donald Trump ended his first 100 days in office the way they began, with a deeply negative, divisive speech that served as a booster shot for his followers’ rage. Included in the tirade, which he delivered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, were attacks on the press, immigrants and progressives.
Once again, he flailed Democrats who “don’t mind the illegals pouring in, the drugs pouring in. They don’t mind.” He also referred to the members of the media as “very dishonest people” and “enemies of the people,” before returning to his diatribe against immigration and the need for a border wall. All of this was offered in a rambling style worthy of a reality TV star – not the President of the United States.
Of course it was style and not substance that Trump traveled to deliver, and it was style that many came to hear. The Saturday spectacle in this swing state was politics practiced as a dark art, designed to entertain the crowd while distracting from the cruel fact that Trump hasn’t been able to fulfill his campaign pledges.
As so often occurs with Trump, reality took a back seat as he celebrated his 100 day mark. Although empty seats could be seen from the podium where he stood, he announced that attendance “broke the all-time record.” He praised the mythological substance called “clean coal” and falsely claimed that The New York Times had apologized for its coverage of the 2016 election.
The decidedly unpresidential tone of Trump’s address was consistent with his motivation for going to Pennsylvania in the first place. The appearance coincided with the annual White House correspondent’s dinner, which has been a tradition in Washington since the 1930s. The event, essentially a roast of the sitting President and others in the power elite, marks the one night of the year when the powerful agree to accept ridicule and even admit to their own flaws, all in the name of charity and amity.
Trump, whose idea of humor is to mock others, is the first President to skip the dinner since Ronald Reagan was recovering from the bullet wounds he suffered in an assassination attempt. For him, there would be no good-natured acceptance of jibes from comedians and politicians. Instead he chose to alienate the majority of Americans who disapprove of his presidency thus far and rally his supporters with an ill-tempered tirade.
Like a sulking child who hosts a competing party when the other kids gather to celebrate, Trump intended to upstage the WHCD, and to some extent he did. His rally got plenty of TV airtime and was live-streamed online.
It reminded his supporters that he can be relied upon to stir their resentment. The event also served the President’s ego, bringing an energy and enthusiasm to his face that has been missing ever since that night when he seemed stunned to see that he had gained the White House while losing the popular vote.
Always a man with a chip on his shoulder, Trump has often seemed quite miserable in the office of the President, and it’s easy to imagine him alone in the White House (with his wife Melania living in New York) dialing up old friends to chat as darkness falls on Washington.
Except for being amused by the fact that he can press a button at his desk and suddenly receive a fresh glass of Coke, Trump has appeared quite grumpy as he struggles to get anything significant accomplished. His legislative failures on health care have been matched by multiple defeats in the courts in his effort to ban visitors from several majority-Muslim countries from our shores. Investigations into his team’s connection to Russia continue, and members of his staff make more headlines for their feuds than for their policy agendas.
The work product of the Trump administration betrays the malaise gripping the man at the top, who only seems like himself when he’s on stage performing as an angry provocateur. He is, at his core, the personification of the politics of division. This quality was fully established when he declared his run for the presidency and has been his modus operandi ever since. In his most authentic moments as President, most recently in Harrisburg, he has made himself into a riveting but also terrifying spectacle that is the shame of the Republican Party and the nation.
On the morning after the Harrisburg speech, the Trump administration announced that the White House would welcome a visit from the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who has admitted to killing suspected drug dealers without first granting them trials. In his embrace of Duterte, who is a global pariah, a leader who loves to talk like a strong man honors a President who kills like one. It is a demonstration of character just as clear, and even more disturbing, than what he gave us in Pennsylvania.
If Trump has proven anything as President, it is that he is unable or unwilling to do the job to which he was elected. This weekend alone, he has shown us he is not interested in uniting the country, inspiring action and fashioning a bright American future. Instead, he is content to take Theodore Roosevelt’s description of the office of the presidency as a “bully pulpit” quite literally.