The president’s Phoenix really went off the rails within minutes. Why did I expect anything else?
PHOENIX—For about 10 minutes it seemed that President Trump might give a normal political speech at the Phoenix Convention Center on Tuesday night. After all, Trump had given a classic example of a normal political speech the previous night—an announcement that he would send additional troops to an endless theater of combat—and it was met with strong “reviews,” as military escalation always is, regardless of the president.
All day we had been getting signals that Trump was pleased with his reviews and might opt for a personal-record two consecutive days of restraint. Earlier in the afternoon, a White House spokesperson told reporters aboard Air Force One that Trump would not use the rally to pardon controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, as had been rumored. Trump also had not brought up his hatred of Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake since a tweet last week, and he did not invite former state Sen. Kelli Ward—the far-right challenger to Flake that Trump had mentioned positively last week—into his entourage for the trip. Perhaps Trump would back off trying to unseat a reliable Senate Republican vote who has criticized him (in a book, no less!). And maybe, just maybe, he would finally put to rest his hedging over whether “some very fine people” had chanted Nazi slogans at the Charlottesville, Virginia, torch-wielding white supremacist rally.
This is how I thought the event might go through the first 10 minutes of Trump’s rally speech, when he was reading off of the teleprompter. But then the next hour happened.
A normal political speech was not what Trump wanted to deliver. Nor was it what the thousands in the crowd waited in line for hours in 108-degree heat to hear. Nor was it what the dozen or so protest groups marched in that same heat to protest. A normal political environment is not something that this drowning country’s political culture can sustain for two consecutive nights. And so, after 10 minutes, Trump initiated the chaos that we can’t kick, a guttural laundry list of grievances all received with the ferocious cheers that normalcy can’t buy.
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By noon Tuesday, the line for the 7 p.m. rally was a block long; by 4 p.m., it was closer to half a mile. The desert breeze, blowing hot dry air into one’s eyeballs, is not comfortable, but Trump supporters wanted to see their president. Businesses and public offices downtown were shutting down early to beat the closing off of the 10-square-block perimeter and its accompanying traffic—including even the courthouse, which a hotel employee told me was “in the middle of a big trial, too!” Some businesses never opened. “Due to safety concerns about today’s events, B&T will be closed today,” read a note taped to the window of the Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour, four blocks from the convention center. “Sorry for any inconvenience.”
This was the first Trump rally I had been to since his (first) presidential campaign ended. As at those campaign rallies, the Phoenix Convention Center was pleasant before the main event, as people talked among themselves while campaign soundtrack standbys from Elton John and the Rolling Stones played over the loudspeakers.
Rep. Trent Franks, who had greeted Trump on the tarmac when he reached Arizona, was talking to attendees in the hallway. He had been the loudest in calling on Trump to pardon Arpaio. I asked him if he was disappointed that it wouldn’t happen at the rally. Franks, after spending the day with Trump, seemed to know something. “No, I think there’s still every possibility that the pardon will occur,” he told me. “He wants to make sure the message he came here to give is received and not overshadowed by any other issue.” He predicted that we would hear a speech “somewhat like the one last night,” the scripted one, about national security, perhaps with a push for tax reform thrown in. A normal political speech.
Kelli Ward, who had not been invited to join Trump backstage, was speaking and taking photos with attendees, many of whom were wearing her campaign stickers. We greeted each other and I asked her how she had been since the previous time we talked in her failed primary bid against Sen. John McCain last year. She was pleasant, but then seemed to remember that now, in her second race, she is supposed to pass off reporters to press handlers who then lead the reporters away from the candidate, and so she did. The inevitable professionalization of political campaigns, as candidates grow in stature and the stakes get higher, takes some spontaneity out of the process. But it’s also comforting when politicians feel the need to watch themselves as the spotlight on them grows. They don’t want to say anything too reckless. The caution is normal.