If Van Jones was right, that a moving tribute to the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL in a speech to Congress earlier this year was the moment Donald Trump became president, Trump’s news conference on Tuesday was the moment he became a Breitbart contributing editor.
Charlottesville has been a diminishing event for President Trump. He has been unable to summon the moral authority of his office, even though this wasn’t a difficult test.
It doesn’t take political skill or crisis-management ability to show largeness of heart. It doesn’t require knowledge to demonstrate basic moral discernment. It doesn’t take a Demosthenes or a Churchill to say the appropriate things about a couple of hundred racist goons. Future historians will marvel that one of the most damaging events in the early Trump administration came in a botched response to a neo-Nazi rally. Even Jake and Elwood Blues could have gotten this right.
Over the past few days, Trump hasn’t spoken as the leader of the country, or even leader of one party, but as a leader of an inflamed faction. This is why it was almost unthinkable that he would give a unifying talk, as any other president would, at the funeral of Heather Heyer, the young woman slain in the vehicular attack by an “alt-right” protester.
Trump’s sensibility is highly unusual for a politician—let alone for the leader of the free world—but very familiar from the internet or social media. As his news conference showed, his level of argument is at the level of a good Breitbart blogger, or of a Twitter egg of yore. He would absolutely kill it in the comments section of a right-wing website or trolling a journalist.
Trump knows some things; covers the weaknesses of his case with sheer aggression; doesn’t care about consistency or common sense; wants to play to the base rather than reach the persuadable middle; and feels liberated from any standards of respectability.
Moreover, it appears he’s happy for his presidency—to paraphrase adviser Steve Bannon’s notorious description of Breitbart—to be a platform for the “alt-right” and in exactly the same sense. Trump doesn’t want his administration actually to be “alt-right” (it is overwhelmingly composed of honorable men and women) and he isn’t himself “alt-right.” But he is keenly aware of the political energy in the fever swamp. He learned this during his time as a birther and during a campaign when sundry haters, conspiracy theorists, s***posters, trolls and bots provided air cover. So he wants to do the minimum necessary to distance himself from it and the maximum possible to associate himself with it.