A Terrorist Is Defeated. Trump Is Jeered. We’ve Been Here Before
The breathtaking thing about baseball is how drastically the momentum can shift in a single at-bat.
So it went at the World Series in Washington on Sunday, not on the field — where the Houston Astros won a 7-1 blowout — but in the stands, where the jeering crowd delivered President Donald Trump a late-innings reversal to his day.
For a president created by TV, the video bookends of the day could not have been a starker contrast. The morning began with one of the most auspicious video appearances of his presidency, as he went on camera to announce the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. It ended with a Bronx cheer by the Potomac.
Trump’s announcement of the successful raid in Syria recalled President Barack Obama’s 2011 surprise appearance to tell Americans that the al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was dead. Certainly Trump, engaged in an eternal contest with the predecessor he never ran against, seemed conscious of the parallel, calling al-Baghdadi “the biggest there is”.
The difference between the two presidents’ TV appearances encapsulated the difference in the style of their administrations, and not only because of Trump’s penchant for comparing sizes.
Obama spoke coolly and matter-of-factly, sharing few details of bin Laden’s actual killing. Trump, began his scripted remarks with “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead,” hitting “is dead” like a snare drum, then went on to detail the target’s last moments with relish. (“I got to watch much of it.”)
Obama’s speech assured Americans that the brutal deed was done and over. Trump’s invited them to relive the deadly operation vicariously through him.
Obama framed the operation in terms of history and justice for the September 11, 2001 attacks. Trump emphasized, as he often has as candidate and president, the satisfaction, in itself, of destroying and humiliating one’s enemies.
Of course, as much as the two presidents’ speeches differed in tone, they shared a subject: The end of an enemy whose cruelty Americans of many political persuasions could agree on. So you might think that Trump, who had already planned, that evening, to attend Game 5 of the World Series, would expect to enjoy a rare moment of his presidency — a public and unanimous round of applause.
This was not coming. Trump is still under impeachment investigation; he is still the president who has gloried in the pain of his adversaries; he is still the man who revelled at his rallies as his fans cheered about his opponent, “Lock her up!”
Sunday night, his pitch was hit back at him.
As the president appeared on the stadium’s big screen, the roar from the stands pitched into a howl of boos, like a movie score shifting into a minor key. Fans pointed and yelled, “Lock him up!” On camera, Trump stood clapping through the catcalls, his beaming smile turning hard and determined, then melting.
By Monday morning, the host Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” — first the enabler of candidate Trump, then frequent critic of the president — deplored the fans for mimicking the president’s own crowds.
But the catcalls were, less than a momentary breach, a resumption of the verbal total war practised by a president who has always treated life as a personal, incessant fight: “a series of battles ending in victory or defeat,” as he told People magazine in 1981.
The moment — Trump, in a rare appearance in front of a hostile crowd, exposed and taunted — recalled a different clip from spring 2011. This was the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where he was roasted by Obama just the day before the bin Laden announcement.
Obama, at that point aware of the operation against the terrorist leader, had just released the long-form version of his birth certificate, to quell Trump’s racist fiction that the president had been born in Africa, not the United States.
Trump, a guest at the dinner, was roasted by the host, the comedian Seth Meyers. He was also done to a turn on camera by the president, who urged him to focus on “the issues that matter: Like, did we fake the moon landing?” Trump, at the time famous for delivering zingers on The Celebrity Apprentice, was stuck at his table, a stiff grin on his lips, as his face journeyed toward the red end of the colour spectrum.
On Sunday, Trump may have thought that he would get, that he deserved, his own bin Laden moment. But it was typical of this febrile time that the moment would be shouted over, within the same day, by a parody of a campaign-trail taunt.
Mockery feels good, but it can have unintended effects. According to some Trump associates, his 2011 filleting goaded him to run for president four years later. Said the former Apprentice contestant and future Trump administration staffer Omarosa Manigault: “Every critic, every detractor will have to bow down to President Trump.”
But now he was president, and they were booing, not bowing. Maybe the Washington crowd’s chant will fuel the president, and his supporters, in his reelection campaign. For this evening, however, there was nothing to do but grin — that grin fading to a grimace — and bear it.
James Poniewozik c.2019 The New York Times Company