Recently I came across a trail of bizarre, hilarious campaign rhetoric from Donald Trump that leads right to two of the core questions about his whole political presence. These questions are as fascinating as they are profoundly disturbing:
- Does he actually mean the things that he says?
- Does he know the answer to question one?
I’m afraid that I have not reached a conclusive answer to either question; as a society, we may never get there. But this is a pretty illuminating glimpse beneath the hood.
It all started with this Tweet, which I saw on Friday (June 17):
The Trump “We’re gonna win” rant to end his speech tonight was amazing – in the top ten of 2016 for sure. pic.twitter.com/7T2EzhqIMg
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) June 18, 2016
Click through and you’ll see a transcript of a speech Trump gave in Texas. Like most Trump transcripts, it gives you plenty to think about, but the highlight is this:
But we’re gonna start winning again. We’re gonna win so much, you people are gonna get sick of it. You’re gonna come up and they’re gonna call me up from Texas. “Mr. Trump, sir, you have thousands and thousands of calls from Texas. They’re all your friends. They heard you speak one night. Mr. Trump! They’re very upset. President Trump, they’re very upset.”
They’re gonna walk in and they’re gonna say – go ahead, what the hell –
They’re gonna walk in. They’re gonna say, “President Trump! Thousands and thousands of calls from Texas – they are so upset with you, Mr. President. They can’t stand the amount with which you’re winning by.
He goes on in this vein for a long time, detailing the many ways he will win (“on trade”, “at the border”, “with your military”, “on health care”, “with Common Core”, and by having “saved the Second Amendment 100%!”).1 The imaginary Texas public keeps begging him to stop, and he refuses.
Of course, this is bizarre stuff. On the one hand, he develops this id-driven, parodic version of a platform consisting of simply listing policy areas, announcing that he will win at them, and moving on. On the other, far more confusing hand, he goes to great lengths to describe the people pleading with him to stop winning so much. This is a man who, again, is running for actual President of a country, so the amazement in that Tweet seems warranted. But oddly enough, Trump’s routine rang a bell for me.
This might be because Trump has done this before. People who are plugged in to conservative media may know this already, but this idea that the American people will beg Trump to stop winning is one of his favorite bits. A little research shows him using very similar rhetoric at an NRA rally in Louisville on May 20, in Billings, Montana on May 16, in Syracuse on April 16, in South Carolina on February 19, at Liberty University on January 18, and in Reno on January 10. My favorite write-up is probably this one by Jack Moore in GQ (describing a speech in Albany on April 12). Like me and other liberal elitists, he mistakenly interprets what he’s seeing as a one-time meltdown, where a Trump voter would likely recognize it as the reliable, beloved bit of rhetorical gold that its constant reuse shows it to be. But Moore also goes on to say (correctly I think ):
But if it’s possible, the weirdest part of the rant wasn’t the fact that the TrumpBot4500’s wiring short circuited leading him to just repeat the words “win” and “winning” so many times that they began to lose all meaning. No, the weirdest part of the rant was the picture it painted of a world, where Trump is President and he makes America win so much that the American people actually beg him to stop winning.
I guess what I’m really noticing here is that simply offering a straightforward description of this speech act is fascinating.2
But the use on the campaign trail wasn’t what I was remembering. With some modest additional research, I suddenly remembered that Trump did nearly the exact same thing in a sketch on Saturday Night Live (here’s a Hulu link if that works for you).
For most of the sketch, various characters just tell Trump how well things are going; Putin has backed down, the economy is in great shape, etc. It’s not great comedy: The actors seem uncomfortable, the audience isn’t laughing much, and, as we’re about to see, the whole thing feels way too much like Trump’s actual campaign rhetoric, because at around 2:55 Taran Killam’s character enters and says:
“We have got a big problem. It’s the American people, sir. They’re just sick of winning! They’re winning so much! It’s just too great, sir.”
As he did in Texas, Trump insists that people are just going to have to accept the winning. The sketch ends with a direct address to the camera in which he insists that his actual Presidency will be even better.
Now, to be clear, I don’t think Trump completely stole this whole idea from Saturday Night Live. He hosted on November 7, 2015, and he was talking about people begging him to stop winning at least as far back as September, 2015. As far as I can tell, this is the first time it goes on at this length, or where various policy areas are mentioned as areas where he has won without any specifics (if anything, SNL has more policy detail than the bit in his Texas speech). So it is certainly possible that some of his favorite campaign lines were actually written by comedy writers who were making fun of him.
Still, we don’t necessarily need to ask whether a man running for President of the United States has based a key part of his campaign speeches on a lightly plagiarized version of a comedy sketch.3 The important thing, the part that no one can argue, is that a key part of his campaign speeches appeared in a comedy sketch, where it was a joke; and furthermore, he clearly knows about this, because he was there, helping make fun of it.
The rational explanation for the appearance of this routine in so many of Trump’s later speeches is that he’s joking; it’s hyperbole for comedic effect, just something to amuse the crowd. I want this to be true, because he might be the President someday. But I can’t quite believe it.
For one thing, the crowd doesn’t treat it like a joke. If you listen to that speech in Texas, they aren’t really laughing; they’re cheering. For another, there are way too many platform-style talking points in these moments, things that you’re not supposed to turn into a big joke. His constituents don’t think it’s funny to say that you’ve eliminated Common Core or “saved the Second Amendment 100%”. Those are genuine policy goals that they take seriously. Politicians don’t make jokes about that stuff—you didn’t see Obama working the crowd by saying, “You’ll all say, Mr. President, how’d you get us out of Iraq so fast?” The basic reason you don’t do that is that it’s only a joke if you obviously won’t achieve those goals—it’s not a joke to just list stuff you think will happen. So does he really expect to get rid of Common Core, or is this something like the idea of people begging him to stop winning—funny only because it’s clearly absurd?
This brings us back to the two questions at the top of the post. For question one, we would seem to have an obvious answer, at least in this one little corner of Trump’s speeches. Does he mean what he says? Surely not, since: 1) These things are flagrantly absurd, and 2) He appeared in a show making fun of these things as obvious jokes.
Yet we also know that 1) He keeps mixing this obvious joke with his actual policy, 2) The crowds cheer rather than laughing. And all of this is made only more confusing by the fact that the reality appears to be warping to fit the TV comedy show—the bit just keeps getting longer and more absurd, to the point that in Texas Trump was performing lines for both himself and his fictional exhausted public.
I think we also have to add one last consideration: Do we have any evidence, from any point in his history, that Trump ever didn’t think he was going to win? However you define winning, doesn’t it seem like he genuinely believes (this may be his most genuine belief) that he is going to triumph? This is where we get back to Question 2. What does Trump think he’s doing up there on stage? He was in the sketch, but does he know it’s a joke? Did some part of him doubt it was truly a joke even when he was on the show? Is he able to hold both beliefs at once, simultaneously knowing that he’s repeating a joke, and truly believing that everything he’s describing will come true in real life?
In the end, I don’t think we can ever know. Is he joking, lying, or just wrong? The answer requires a journey into the mind of Trump. It’s a journey only he can make; but I’m not sure even he knows if he ever has.
1. Also like most Trump transcripts, this one contains a lot of phrases that sound like bad machine translations. On Common Core, for instance, he says, “You’re gonna end it and bring education local”, and again, that other one is “they can’t believe you’ve saved the Second Amendment 100%!” ↩
2. Marlow, in Heart of Darkness: “There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination–you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.” ↩
3. I haven’t seen him credit the SNL writers/cast in his speeches, for what I take to be obvious reasons, but I don’t want to accuse him of anything—maybe he has (this would be kind of incredible). ↩