At a campaign rally in Toledo, the president ran through a litany of hyperbolic attacks on Democrats: They want open borders, they are more extreme than ever, they are “stone-cold crazy.” It wasn’t a great departure from his usual fare, but he then for some reason stepped back for a moment.
“You know it’s interesting, as I’m saying this stuff — you know, ‘They want crime, they want chaos’ — I’m saying all this stuff, and then I say, ‘Gee, now I sort of understand why they hate me for it,’ ” Trump said.
Perhaps recognizing he had just essentially admitted to his own over-the-top rhetoric, Trump then added an addendum: “But it’s true.”
It was a striking moment of apparent self-awareness from the man whose critics will tell you he’s utterly lacking in that quality, but it wasn’t the first. Since before he was a politician, and several times since, he has momentarily offered reflection on the showman you see before you.
At an event with African American supporters in November, Trump quipped about his tendency to fly off the cuff, “I do my best work off-script — my best work. I hate to say this: I also do my worst work off-script.”
Trump at one point this summer seemed to second-guess his devotion to a trade war with China, despite him at other points expressing total devotion to it and claiming it’s working magnificently. Asked whether he had second thoughts about escalating it, Trump responded in the affirmative.
“Yeah, sure. Why not?” he said at the G-7 summit in France in August, adding: “I have second thoughts about everything.”
Similar to his comments Thursday night, Trump in 2018 seemed to admit for a moment that he might personally be culpable for the country’s coarsening political rhetoric. He was asked by Time magazine whether his White House was too combative.
“I think it is. It could be my fault,” he said. “I don’t want to necessarily blame, but there’s a great meanness out there that I’m surprised at. I mean I’m surprised.”
Trump’s interviews with non-Trump-friendly media outlets have indeed occasionally pulled Trump out of his well-constructed shell. There were two moments in one interview with the Wall Street Journal when Trump seemed to drop the act.
One came when he seemed to admit that he’s fickle — he would prefer the word “flexible” — in his relationships with people:
WSJ: Some people would see your tweets, which are sometimes combative toward Kim Jong Un …TRUMP: Sure, you see that a lot with me, and then all of a sudden somebody’s my best friend. I could give you 20 examples. You give me 30. I’m a very flexible person.
He then expanded on that, saying, “I don’t know what the word ‘permanent’ means”:
WSJ: Is that relationship permanently broken between you and [former adviser Stephen K. Bannon]?TRUMP: You never know, you know again, the word — I don’t know what the word “permanent” means, OK? I never know what the word “permanent” means.
Another big example came in 2014, when Trump for a moment reflected to a biographer on his lack of self-reflection. He basically admitted that his ego forces him to resist it.
“No, I don’t want to think about it,” he said when asked about the meaning of life. “I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see."
Trump’s books have also occasionally allowed for such insights into himself — or at least into people like him. In a 1987 book called “Trump: Think Like a Billionaire,” Trump suggested people like him need to be narcissists.
He said they succeed “because they are narcissists who devote their talent with unrelenting focus to achieving their dreams, even if it’s sometimes at the expense of those around them.”
The idea that Trump is in on the joke, at least to some degree, won’t be news to his supporters. They have long believed that criticism of Trump fails to recognize the game he’s playing — which they also believe they’re in on.
It doesn’t mean, though, that everything follows that pattern. A telling example came when Trump spoke to the United Nations last year and lodged his repeated claim to being the most successful president in history to that point in his tenure.
The world leaders present laughed, and Trump sure didn’t seem to be in on that joke.
“Didn’t expect that reaction,” he said, “but that’s okay.”