Phoenix didn’t erupt into civil unrest on Tuesday, no thanks to Donald Trump.
In the midst of a massive controversy over his woefully insufficient response to the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville on August 12, the Phoenix speech was the president returning to a campaign rally, speaking to his base.
Trump laid out the red meat for his audience, serving out attack on attack on the media and the left. He downright accused them of being anti-American: "I really think they don't like our country. I really believe that."
The feeding frenzy never materialized.
In the lead-up to the rally, Phoenix seemed like a recipe for chaos. The mayor of Phoenix begged Trump to cancel. The governor chose to skip the rally and monitor the law-enforcement response to what were sure to be thousands of protesters, instead.
But the preparations made in fear of unrest ended up preventing it.
The Phoenix police’s aggressive moves to disperse the crowd shortly after the rally ended — in response to reports of a few bottles and rocks thrown at police officers — obscured the underlying truth: Protesters and police agreed that the scene outside the convention center was overwhelmingly civil. As for the speech itself, it did something that almost never happens to Donald Trump, as the Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson noted: It bored the audience, losing them to their smartphones, and the exits, over the course of the speech.
In other words, everyone but the president behaved themselves.
Trump’s speech, at a moment when it was at least agreed that the president ought to be trying to unify the country, was almost entirely a complaint that the press, Republican senators, and the press again, “don’t want to make America great again.”
His Tuesday speech wasn’t surprising — as the Post’s Robert Costa said, it was basically a live version of the president’s own Twitter feed.
This rally speech is quite revealing. A Twitter feed come alive, a long list of media complaints. "USA" chants as retweets.— Robert Costa (@costareports) August 23, 2017
Trump has one great gift as a politician: prosecuting culture war. It's the only gift he's ever been interested in bestowing on the American public. But ultimately on Tuesday, he was too engrossed in airing his own grievances to bother to stoke his audience's.
If Trump isn’t going to discover a sudden interest in unifying America, it appears the best thing he can do for it is get distracted licking his own wounds.
After Charlottesville, everyone in Phoenix feared violence — so they worked to prevent it
Shortly after Trump left the stage on Tuesday, it looked like the tension had finally snapped: Suddenly, police were throwing smoke bombs and pepper balls into the crowd of thousands of protesters outside the arena.
It looked, for a second, like chaos — and it’s entirely possible that that second is all that matters, that it will be replayed in Republican campaign ads and cable news b-roll for years.
But that second passed.
Only three arrests were made. Most of the people referred to medical personnel were cases of heat exhaustion — many of them older rally attendees who’d collapsed in the heat waiting to enter the venue (allegedly the result of poor White House event planning). Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams insisted, “All in all, we had a successful celebration — I wouldn’t call it chaos.”
The biggest concern about Tuesday, though, hadn’t been clashes between protesters and police, but clashes between protesters and Trump rallygoers. For hours before the doors opened to the Phoenix Convention Center, unrest seemed a split second away. Pictures of militia members, of the left and right, standing at attention with long guns pinged around Twitter.
In reality, though, those groups were well-separated by police. When they did meet, they were as likely to engage in serious conversation about not wanting anything bad to happen, followed by a handshake, as to yell slogans at each other. They didn’t have a lot of opportunities for confrontation, but they didn’t force them, either. Even the protesters who interrupted the rally were escorted out without incident.
More than anything, it was reminiscent of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland: Concerns about civil unrest had been so overwhelming that everyone on the scene, including police and protesters, was on their guard and eager to prevent it from breaking out.
This isn’t, necessarily, a victory for civil society. Both in Cleveland and Phoenix, the fear of civil unrest was real because actual civil unrest had happened elsewhere in the country a few weeks before. Watching the scene in Phoenix unfold on social media felt perverse, like everyone was secretly hoping something exciting would happen to justify spending an evening glued to Twitter. It is corrosive to spend hours on end feeling like things are about to snap, and, when they don’t, to feel relief that a needle has successfully been threaded between anarchy and overpoliced control.
But what it means, fundamentally, is that most Americans who were in downtown Phoenix last night did not want to start any trouble.
Trump would be a more dangerous demagogue if he weren’t so selfish
On Tuesday, Trump appeared largely oblivious to what was going on outside the convention center’s air-conditioned and underfilled arena.
That certainly meant he missed any opportunity he would have had to inspire genuine unity. But it also meant he wasn’t working to provoke fear and anger of a black-masked crowd of barbarians waiting beyond the gates — the sort of thing that might have provoked more violence after the rally. If anything, his insistence on lying about how small the protests were minimized the size of the threat.
This was the most instructive thing about the speech Trump gave, in the context that he gave it: The president is more obsessed with his own personal antipathies than he is interested in deepening the antipathies of his supporters. He’s less interested in the “antifa” versus “racist” street fights that he could have provoked, than in talking about how unfair to him everyone is.
Trump’s political genius is that he, a man who feels grievance deeply, has found a political base of people who want to see their grievances validated. And Trump and his supporters share many of the same grievances.
But they don’t share them to the same extent. Trump supporters in Phoenix, like at other rallies, dutifully turned to the press pen and booed when told. But they don’t suck quite as much outrage as Trump does out of every little insult propagated by the “fake news.”
Somewhere between his obsessive (if misleading) recapitulation of his Charlottesville reaction, and his umpteenth complaint about the Washington Post and Amazon, something unusual happened: Trump began to lose his audience.
As Johnson reported for the Washington Post:
Hundreds left early, while others plopped down on the ground, scrolled through their social media feeds or started up a conversation with their neighbors. 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.
Even behind the podium — in the seats reserved for key allies or people who make good b-roll — two attendees engaged in a sustained conversation beyond the president’s right ear:
trump so boring now people on stage having in-depth side conversations pic.twitter.com/2R3d4UQj4J— Oliver Willis (@owillis) August 23, 2017
Maybe Tuesday was just a fluke. Trump was in Phoenix to begin with because he feeds off crowds; he’s shown a shrewd sensitivity to figure out what they’re angry about, and make them more angry, in the past. A Trump who had done that in Phoenix could have done real damage.
But he didn’t. The only rage he fed off was his own.
Demagogues can’t be boring. And Trump was, last night, just that.