Donald Trump isn't going to change, no matter what damage he does.
Left: Trump in Phoenix. Right: A protester outside the rally. Photos by Ralph Freso/Laura Segall/AFP via Getty
On Tuesday night, Donald Trump got on stage in Phoenix, Arizona, and did his thing. You know the drill by now—we all do. He ranted about the media, he bragged about his election victory, he went through a false line-by-line reading of his statements about a woman dying in Charlottesville—omitting the "many sides" part that he was criticized for. He talked about clean coal in a confusing and wrong way, he did a bit where he pretended CNN had turned its cameras off, he said he'd shut the government down if Congress didn't fund the building of his big beautiful border wall. He called Arizona Republican senator Jeff Flake "weak on borders, weak on crime."
And he all but promised to pardon Joe Arpaio, a former Arizona sheriff convicted of contempt of court after his officers continued to racially profile Hispanic drivers in defiance of a judge's order.
It goes without saying that "the media"—commentators and other journalists who don't work for an explicitly hard-right outlet like FOX News or Breitbart—have already condemned Trump, mocked him, subjected his untruths to the usual fact-checking. By now we know it makes little difference. "As the night dragged on, many in the crowd lost interest in what the president was saying," reported the Washington Post. That line is sure to enrage Trump more than anything.
It also goes without saying that Trump will use any criticism as fuel for the fire of self-pity and bitterness that sustained him through a brutal presidential campaign and now sustains a quagmired presidency. There will be more fanning of these flames from Trump, more whining, more bashing of "the elites." The cycle of Trump and his critics using each other as foils will continue. The rancor will not abate—not any time soon, anyway.
Trump is not responsible for the inequality, the sense of American life not being fair, that in various ways helped stoke recent political movements from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street and likely contributed to Hillary Clinton's defeat in November. But he has continuously stoked resentment and anger—particularly, if not exclusively, among whites—and weaponized it. He's long told his supporters that the people to blame are immigrants, Muslims, refugees, the Political Establishment writ large, and the media. He's always said these things in the most bombastic way possible, with no regard for precision or facts. Tuesday's event simply confirmed he will not change—not even after an American died and many more were badly hurt in Charlottesville.
There is not going to be a new version of Trump who embraces the economic populist policies he hinted at on the campaign trail, either. (Steve Bannon, the only top-level adviser pushing for anything approaching economic populism, was pushed out of the White House last week.) To put it bluntly, Trump doesn't care about the "forgotten men and women" he claims to represent. Witness his proposed budget, which called for massive cuts for programs that benefit the poor and underserved. (His boasts about jobs coming back are disingenuous at best.) He just wants to keep his supporters outraged, to stoke the fires of the grievances so that they are just as embittered as he is.
Make no mistake, the majority of Americans do not embrace Trump's divisive rhetoric, and many fear it. "Trump has doused racial tensions with gasoline. With his planned visit to Phoenix on Tuesday, I fear the president may be looking to light a match," Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton wrote in a Monday op-ed for the Washington Post urging the president to postpone the rally. Trump, of course, did not follow that advice. And as Tuesday night became Wednesday morning, we saw why Stanton was worried: Massive protests clogged the streets, and police in riot gear dispersed a violent crowd with tear gas, a by-now familiar sight to anyone who watches the news.
But Trump does not care about such disruptions. Any discord that follows him he can blame on the agitators, the haters, the invisible enemies he spends so much of his time as president complaining about. Conflict, as the former reality TV actor surely knows, makes for good drama. It keeps people interested and entertained. It compels them to rally around their tribes. If the death in Charlottesville did not convince Trump tensions in the country were too high, that he should corral his impulse to fire up his hardcore supporters for the sake of national unity, then it seems clear nothing will.
There will be more rallies and speeches like this. Trump will not change. If there is more violence in the streets, he will not respond any differently. Barring a truly unprecedented series of events, he will be president until at least January 2021—and possibly longer. This presidency is only just beginning.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.