President Donald Trump gave a trio of high-profile speeches this week
Trump used language that can have different meanings to different audiences
In a week that will help define Donald Trump’s presidency, the nation got a vivid display of his fluctuating temperament.
Call it whiplash. Call it Campaign Trump versus Teleprompter Trump. Call it sizing up a room and playing to an specific audience.
Or even call it, as former director of National Intelligence James Clapper did on CNN, “downright scary and disturbing.”
The shifting presidential moods witnessed in a trio of speeches are providing more fuel for a persistent political question: Who is the real Donald Trump?
No one can be sure which version of the President will show up on any given day, whether in the Oval Office, on TV or on Twitter.
Trump on Thursday weighed into the debate himself, claiming that his jarring emotional shifts were evidence of rare political dexterity and talent.
“The Fake News is now complaining about my different types of back to back speeches. Well, there was Afghanistan (somber), the big Rally … (enthusiastic, dynamic and fun) and the American Legion - V.A. (respectful and strong),” Trump wrote in a pair of tweets. “Too bad the Dems have no one who can change tones!”
As the President suggests, seeing him simply as a creature of moods tends to oversimplify the case. While the debate over which is the authentic Trump gets at his temperament, it fails to dig deep on his persona and political method.
Whether he’s running hot, as at a campaign rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night or keeping his cool as commander-in-chief in his Afghanistan strategy speech on Monday or before the American Legion on Wednesday in Reno, Nevada, Trump is pushing many consistent themes and ideas, sometimes openly, sometimes more subtly.
These concepts – including culture, race, history, patriotism and loyalty are beginning to emerge as a philosophical guide to his presidency.
In his Tuesday night campaign rally, Trump blasted the media and questioned reporters’ patriotism, slammed Republican senators and misquoted his own remarks about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, to debunk criticism of his conduct on a scarring national debate on race.
In Reno, Trump seemed to be in a more soothing mood.
“We are not defined by the color of our skin, the figure on our paycheck or the party of our politics,” he said Wednesday. “We are defined by our shared humanity – by our citizenship in this magnificent nation, and by the love that fills our hearts.”
On the face of it, Trump appeared to be contradicting himself in the two speeches.
But later in the Reno event, Trump used language that can have different meanings to different audiences, again implicitly referred to the debate about race, culture and history, that was sparked when he drew equivalencies between white extremists in Charlottesville and protestors against their marches.
“History and culture – so important,” he told the veterans, cloaking his argument in a call to patriotism.
“You emphasize the need to preserve the nation’s cultural, moral and patriotic values. You encourage the observation of patriotic holidays. You stress the need to enforce our laws, including our immigration laws.”
Those are sentiments anybody could get behind. But coming from Trump’s lips, things are not so simple.
In the context of Trump’s campaign and previous rhetoric and controversial immigration policies, those words could also be read as a clear message to his political base. And the concept of history and culture may not equate with those of Americans who oppose him – some of whom see such language as code words for a certain political stance on race.
For instance, condemning efforts to tear down Confederate monuments, the President has repeated warned that America’s “culture” is under threat.
On Twitter last week, he wrote, “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” Those remarks offered comfort not just to loyal Trump base voters who are irked at the removal of monuments they see as symbols of southern culture, but may also have played into the arguments of white supremacist groups who use such artifacts as a rallying call.
Trump’s message of inclusion in Reno was also undercut by the fact that a White House official Wednesday told CNN that all the paperwork was in place for him to pardon former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of contempt in a case related to racial profiling.
For Trump’s critics, such a step would run counter to his message of racial unity but it would be consistent with his frequent desire to reach out to his political base on issues like undocumented migrants and immigration.
It would not the first time that the President has appeared to offer a conventional, unifying message — but conveyed more subtle political signals when he has been in his calm, commander-in-chief mode.
In June, the President’s speech in Warsaw was hailed by many US commentators as a return to the values and assurances that have underpinned the Western alliance for decades, following his campaign trail denunciations of NATO.
But many in Europe heard a quite different message, picking up on his language and stark question: “Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” To critics, Trump was invoking a version of the West in line with his own nationalist views, advocating a white, Christian civilization with impenetrable borders that would be antithetical to the more secular, multicultural vision of many Europeans.
Trump has also been talking frequently about another core value – loyalty – in recent weeks.
“Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people,” Trump said in his speech on Afghanistan policy on Monday night.
On Tuesday, in Phoenix, he hit the same theme: “We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans, right?”
On the surface no one could argue with that. Yet Trump’s conception of loyalty might give critics pause.
Throughout his seven-month-old presidency, Trump has shown himself fixated with loyalty – and his perception that he is not getting enough of it.
After all, his request for loyalty from James Comey made the former FBI chief uncomfortable, and his refusal to offer it unconditionally to Trump, apparently led to his dismissal.
At a combustible performance at a Boy Scout jamboree in West Virginia in July, Trump said: “we could use some more loyalty, I will tell that you that.”
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.