Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
When I interviewed Donald Trump in 2014, he told me that one of his big beefs with President Obama was that after he took office, he had stopped being a good “cheerleader.” The man who would succeed Obama in the White House thinks rallying the country is one of a president’s main responsibilities and he was disappointed that, in his view, someone with such obvious oratorical gifts neglected to apply them.
The president-as-cheerleader model helps explain why Trump went ahead with a campaign-style rally as Hurricane Michael ripped into Florida and then tore into neighboring states. Few things matter more to him than performing before a chanting crowd and he believes he’s very good at it.
Who could argue that Trump knows how to draw the aggressive energy out of an audience until a room crackles with the energy of a high school gym on basketball night in Indiana? “Lock her up” isn’t so different from “Defense! Defense!” except that it is scarier to hear emanating from a crowd gathered to listen to the supposed leader of the free world.
The trouble with the cheerleader model as employed by Trump is threefold.
First, he does it too much. Many occasions – like, say, the moment when a storm is blowing apart coastal communities – are not suitable for pep rallies. Second, his cheers aren’t for all Americans but, rather, for his partisans. Third, he’s mean-spirited. The tone Trump creates at his rallies is worse than what you’ll experience at Yankee Stadium when the Red Sox are on the field.
Trump’s rallies are in such danger of becoming overexposed that even Fox News has decided not to air some of them in full. “Trump’s campaign speeches tend to follow a similar pattern,” Politico reported, quoting a source who said, “network officials’ fear was that too much repetition would lead to lower ratings.”
This is tantamount to the booster club giving up on the home team’s pep squad because the boys and girls have lost their appeal.
White House aides are reportedly in touch with Fox on the rally issue. I am sure the President has fewer higher priorities than getting his appearances back on the network. As a man who struggles to appear presidential. Trump knows that he looks deficient in many of the roles commonly associated with the office. He meets high schoolers who are devastated by gun violence and needs crib notes on empathy. He visits natural disaster victims and throws paper towels at them.
Second to cheerleading, among the Trump presidential priorities, may be the pursuit of celebrity credibility. Although he frequently complains about Hollywood liberals, he craves the attentions of the famous. So it was that he welcomed Kanye West to the Oval Office, where he made a jabbering spectacle of himself. In his “Make America Great Again” hat, Kanye himself proved to be an enthusiastic cheerleader for the President, which explains why Trump indulged him.
Rally Trump is the role the President began refining as a pathologically competitive boy playing soldier at his military high school. (At the end of his time there he wound up being the parade leader.). He refined the performance during aborted presidential bids, perfected it as a how-to-get-rich public speaker and reached the heights during the 2016 election.
As President, Trump hasn’t grown into the office in the way of his predecessors. Instead he continues to spread anger, sarcasm, and mockery, which sound discordant in most settings. However they do represent Trump at his most authentic. He is never more himself than when he is rousing a crowd into anger against fellow Americans. It’s not very presidential but it is very Trump and he’ll never give it up.