Confusingly, President Donald Trump engaged with history from his bully pulpit during his press conference on Tuesday. Speaking from the gilded lobby of Trump Tower in New York City, Trump attempted to take questions about infrastructure, and instead was met with a chorus of questions about his response to the Aug. 12 fracas in Charlottesville, Va., in which self-proclaimed white supremacists and neo-Nazis violently descended on the college town for two days of fighting that ended with three dead. Trump pivoted, in just half an hour, from his strongest condemnation of the perpetrators yet to a defensive, scattershot breakdown that blamed “both sides” for the violence. During that denouement, he tried to complicate the issue of Confederate monuments in America by throwing out that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveowners.
It was so unlike Trump to call to historical fact that it was a little destabilizing — an almost nuanced argument about how to reclaim history, albeit one that seems to not understand that unlike Jefferson and Washington, Robert E. Lee decided not just to own slaves but to stake his life and reputation on commanding an army battling for the right to keep slaves, across the South, forever.
It would be terrifyingly and mind-numbingly simple for Trump to acknowledge that racism is bad and move on. But no; he has to get into it. Following events in Charlottesville that struck a nerve for many Americans because it looked like a Nazi rally, except on American soil, Trump’s tack is to needle and pick at American history.
It is not new that the president has little regard for the truth — specifically, for those facts that do not personally satisfy him. This feeds directly into a bullying disdain of the press, who in his mind are uncovering material inconvenient to him. Trump’s self-delusion about “fake news” is something impossible to understand; for an incredibly media-savvy man, his capacity for self-deception is simply unparalleled. But even though it is expected, it is alarming to watch the president of the United States use excoriating language about the assembled journalists as if it were transitional filler, like “um” or “anyway” — laying into the press corps, indiscriminately, with accusations that they don’t report facts or are unfair or biased or false.
It’s also not new that the president only cares to serve his base. His inauguration speech, written by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, actually used the words “America first” in an unabashed and polarizing pander to his white nationalist core supporters. Trump doesn’t really see himself as the president of America, but instead as the perpetual winner; he has no idea what public service looks like.
And yet it is still alarming and disheartening to see it all in action. In Tuesday’s press conference, Trump presented peak Trumpism; he rejected a much-documented, incredibly obvious phenomenon for a narrative more convenient to him, which he quite possibly made up on the spot, because it feels better to him. It is impossible to deny Trump’s force of personality, which briefly makes nearly any claim appear plausible. What undercuts Trump’s charisma is how blatantly self-serving he is, at all times. He could not even end the press conference without sneaking in a reference to one of his properties — while standing in the lobby of another and coming off of a vacation at a third.
Observers of the media have said time and again that Trump is a kind of wizard with his own brand management, and I don’t disagree. But it is fascinating how even here, with the simplest possible path to uniting and inspiring most Americans, he just can’t do it. To be sure, Trump is a racist — he waged a racist war against President Obama, called Mexicans “rapists,” has plans to build a wall on the border, and did his best in the first days of his term to ban Muslim immigration — but you can be a racist and still condemn white supremacy. Trump does not care about unity. His skill is in provoking and antagonizing most of us, and in satisfying the mean-spirited impulses of others, and in keeping his name in the papers. He’s like the Jerry Springer of presidents, where America is the crying family on the couch; he knows how to tear us apart, but like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, he doesn’t know how to put us back together again.
Watching that press conference is watching a president who doesn’t care about most Americans. Overwhelming disgust at the neo-Nazi rally only seems to strengthen his resolve to defend some “very fine people” who he insists were “innocently” protesting. Trump’s approval rating is the lowest it’s ever been and he is so put off by the onslaught of bad press about him that he has taken to relying on two packets of positive propaganda, presented to him in the morning and afternoon.
The message is clear: Trump isn’t there to make us happy; we’re here to make him happy. The look on his face, at the press conference Tuesday afternoon, suggests we aren’t doing a good enough job.