Donald Trump's Phoenix rally speech revealed a man deteriorating before our very eyes

President's performance recalled paranoid final days of comedian Lenny Bruce, when legendary US stand-up became increasingly mired in grievance, resentment and self-absorption

Greg Sargent
Thursday 24 August 2017 10:21 BST
Donald Trump attacks critics as rambling Phoenix rally speech descends into public meltdown

Were you deeply alarmed by President Donald Trump's performance in Arizona on Tuesday night? If so, that is understandable. Trump is getting worse. He rambled and ranted with abandon. He hinted that he will pardon Joe Arpaio. He escalated his attacks on the media, accusing them of misrepresenting his response to the violence in Charlottesville. Yet he also doubled down on his defence of Confederate monuments, claiming that “they” are trying to “take away OUR heritage and OUR history.” (Emphasis added.)

All of this appeared to signal a growing contempt for the rule of law and an increasing indifference to the health of our democracy and institutions, and to his own responsibilities and duty to the public to try to calm the antagonisms unleashed in Charlottesville's aftermath. If anything, at this difficult moment of national introspection, Trump conspicuously sought to further inflame those antagonisms. Some reacted with deep panic: Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper labelled the speech “downright scary and disturbing,” adding: “I really question his ability to be - his fitness to be - in this office.”

But without minimising the dangers that Trump still poses, it's worth considering Trump's act in a somewhat less alarming light, by comparing it with another, similar performance: Dustin Hoffman's powerful depiction of the public deterioration of legendary political satirist and comedian Lenny Bruce, in the movie Lenny. And this hints at where this could - could - all end up.

It is true that Trump's performance did energise the crowd at key moments, such as when he hinted that the Arpaio pardon is coming and when he attacked the media (“CNN sucks! CNN sucks!” chanted the crowd). But The Post's Jenna Johnson captures another side of the audience's reaction with this memorable description:

“As the night dragged on, many in the crowd lost interest in what the President was saying.

“Hundreds left early, while others plopped down on the ground, scrolled through their social media feeds or started up a conversation with their neighbours. After waiting for hours in 107-degree heat to get into the rally hall - where their water bottles were confiscated by security - people were tired and dehydrated and the president just wasn't keeping their attention. Although Trump has long been the master of reading the mood of a room and quickly adjusting his message to satisfy as many of his fans as possible, his rage seemed to cloud his senses.”

Obviously, the comparison between Trump and Lenny Bruce, as portrayed by Hoffman, is imperfect in all kinds of ways. But not in this one way. Bruce was arrested for various low-level charges, including obscenity and drug possession, and in the movie Lenny, Hoffman depicts Bruce's later performances as public displays of increasing grievance, resentment and self-absorption over his legal plight, and deteriorating awareness of his audience.

In one of these, Bruce is muttering to himself unintelligibly as audience members shift uncomfortably and begin to leave. “Where you going?” Bruce says, despairingly. Then he slips into sardonic self-pity over his persecution for obscenity: “Hey, where you people going? Oh, come on, man! I haven't even said [expletive depicting sexual act] yet!”

In another, Bruce is reading to his audience from documents involving his legal troubles, and he is so deep in the legal weeds (and in his self-absorption) that people again begin leaving. “Oh, come on, man!” Bruce says to the departing patrons. “Where you going? No, I don't wanna do t—- and a—!”

There were hints of this sort of deterioration from Trump on Tuesday night. There was the self-pity, the self-absorption, the outsize resentment and grievance. And it could get worse. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican-Kentucky, reportedly has confided that he isn't sure Trump's presidency can be saved. Degenerating relations with congressional Republicans could imperil other pieces of his agenda, leading to more anger and frustration. Special counsel Robert Mueller's probe continues, meaning more revelations lie ahead.

Tuesday night, Trump actually read aloud from his previous comments on Charlottesville - just as Bruce did from his legal documents - to illustrate how unfair the media is being to him. It's not hard to imagine the dynamic that Johnson describes above getting worse over time, with Trump increasingly wallowing in the details of his persecution while his audiences increasingly lose interest.

To be clear, Trump still commands immense control over the news cycle, which means he could very well turn things around. And whatever is to be on that front, I don't want to minimise the dangers Trump still poses. It is horrifying that Trump continues to stoke racial division for what appear to be deeply cynical purposes (as former chief strategist Stephen Bannon openly revealed to be the case). Trump may expand his deportation dragnet, and Tuesday night Trump threatened a government shutdown over his Mexican wall. This and the Arpaio pardon could maximise the ugliness. The attacks on the press could further erode public faith in the news media's legitimate institutional role and could conceivably end in violence. An effort to remove Mueller remains a very real possibility. Trump controls our nuclear arsenal, and he still has not faced a full-blown crisis.

Meanwhile, The Trump Show - such as the one witnessed on Tuesday night - poses a threat in another way, too. It is a distraction from all of the various damage the Trump administration is doing on the deregulatory front, and from his continued self-dealing and naked profiting off of the presidency, which is itself a serious threat to the future health of norms governing the conduct of our public officials.

But for all that, further deterioration into an increasingly buffoonish and self-absorbed figure (again, with apologies to Bruce for the imperfect comparison) also remains a possibility. Hoffman may not look the part, but it's seductive to imagine an actor of his ability and depth playing it.

The Washington Post

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in