If we lived in a different world, the joke could begin in a familiar, guy-goes-into-a-bar way: “So the president walks into a convention center in Phoenix and …”
But this is the Trump era. Only slices of White House life are just comic. Much more of what the president serves up to American voters, legislators, policymakers and the rest of the world routinely smacks, at best, of the tragicomic.
The president’s speech on Tuesday night in Phoenix is just the latest case in point. It had the requisite elements of vaudevillian propaganda (he accused CNN of not broadcasting his speeches as he spoke into a CNN camera broadcasting his speech); damaging cant (he misrepresented his statements following this month’s neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, to repackage himself as the morally sensitive leader he isn’t); flagrant lies (he hasn’t obtained a “historic increase” in military spending), and saber-rattling (he threatened to shut down the federal government unless Congress funds his Great Border Wall).
Trump’s Phoenix rantathon also deployed personal broadsides against two members of his own party who are also Arizona’s senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake. He slammed McCain for not supporting a Senate effort to repeal and replace Obamacare and he dismissed Flake as a nonentity (“Nobody knows who the hell he is”).
Pounding on McCain and Flake lacks political decorum, of course, and the shabbiness of it is only enhanced by the fact that McCain is struggling with brain cancer. And Trump, who managed to secure five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, once questioned whether McCain, who spent more than five years in a Vietnamese prison, was a war hero.
But beyond Trump’s seediness looms the larger issue of why he habitually attacks natural allies, even when contrary to his own self-interest.
Remember, Trump’s trolling of McCain and Flake is far less perilous to his legislative agenda than taking on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Yet our man is fearless. He’s been trying to slap McConnell around so much of late that the two men stopped talking for weeks. The New York Times’s Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin reported this week that the acrimony between Trump and McConnell “has curdled into a feud of mutual resentment and sometimes outright hostility.” McConnell, a wily political technician who is not to be trifled with, apparently doubts that “Trump will be able to salvage his administration.”
You’d expect Trump to do all that he can to reel in McConnell. The majority leader holds sway over various Senate committees that Trump needs for such things as re-engineering the tax code or keeping fallout under wraps from various investigations into links to Russia.
Yet Trump, after bungling his own role in the Obamacare debacle, found it simpler to blame McConnell than to take responsibility himself. He’s been on the warpath with McConnell ever since, so focused on avoiding blame for a losing effort around one piece of legislation — health care — that he’s willing to jeopardize the rest of his White House stay.
This, as it always does with Trump, follows a pattern. Back in the late 1980s, Trump was trying to build a mega-development on the west side of Manhattan. He blew the deal in part because he got into a needless public brawl with the mayor of New York at the time, Ed Koch.