President Donald Trump assessed the 2020 Democratic primary field last week in the unvarnished style of a cable news pundit - or as a brash sports radio host belittling the opposing team's roster.
He dismissed former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke as "made to fall like a rock," asking: "What the hell happened?"
He reduced Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to an offensive nickname and a single sentence: "Pocahontas, I think, is probably out."
And he opined on the relative merits of former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.: "Bernie's crazy, but Bernie's got a lot more energy than Biden, so you never know."
The rat-a-tat-tat overview - delivered during a recent speech ostensibly about energy policy in Hackberry, Louisiana - illustrated Trump's compulsion to be the nation's omnipresent political commentator, even while competing as a candidate himself.
On Monday, Trump was at it again, offering a play-by-play of his perceived Democratic rivals on Twitter. "Looks like Bernie Sanders is history," Trump wrote. "Sleepy Joe Biden is pulling ahead and think about it, I'm only here because of Sleepy Joe and the man who took him off the 1% trash heap, President O! China wants Sleepy Joe BADLY!"
Trump's handicapping of the Democratic presidential race is one part of his much broader role as the country's de facto narrator in chief - inserting himself into nearly every major cultural moment or controversy, and putting his own commentary and jeers at the center of the conversation.
Trump in recent weeks has weighed in on actor Jussie Smollett's case in Chicago ("It is an embarrassment to our Nation!"), instructed the French government on how to fight the fire that engulfed Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral ("flying water tankers"), and disparaged what he viewed as the "political correctness" of the Kentucky Derby ("It was a rough & tumble race on a wet and sloppy track"). He routinely acts as TV critic - taking aim at "Saturday Night Live" and other shows he doesn't like - or as sports commentator, such as when he congratulated Trump-supporting player Nick Bosa for being No. 2 in the NFL draft.
"He brings you into his narrative. You can't resist. It's kind of a mind trap," said Bret Easton Ellis, the provocative writer whose latest nonfiction book, "White," details how many liberals feel both alarmed by Trump and unable to escape "the orange monster," as he dubs the president, whether in their social media feeds or at dinner with friends.
Ellis, who has chronicled Trump's exploits since the 1980s, said the president has effectively fused his celebrity tabloid persona with political power, becoming a rare mass cultural touchstone in a fractured modern age.
"Everything has become so niche that not even 'Game of Thrones' is able to unite everyone into having an opinion or forcing themselves to not have an opinion," Ellis said. "Trump is a great unifier in some horrible way."
Trump's naked eagerness to make any story or occasion about himself stems from his self-conception as both a star and a producer, a director and a writer, according to friends, advisers and critics. And now, they say, he is able to deploy the platform of the presidency to amplify that vision of himself as a leading man.
Or, said Trump biographer Tim O'Brien, as the most influential caller into a talk radio show.
" 'Oh, hi, this is Don from Queens and I'm sick and tired of people being politically correct about the Kentucky Derby,' " O'Brien said, imagining dialogue with Trump as talk radio chatter. "And he's sitting in an arm chair - a Barcalounger - with the newspaper and a burger, getting progressively cantankerous."
O'Brien, executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion, added that Trump is "constantly narrating his own reality television series, and it now just happens to be the presidency."
Trump's desire to capture the nation's collective attention can make him seem inescapable - a cascade of alerts on a phone, the all-caps headline on cable news, and the unavoidable presence at work and family gatherings alike. Voters may love him, they may hate him, they may even mute him - but he never disappears.
Shortly after Tiger Woods won the 83rd Masters Tournament by a single shot, Trump invited him to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, basking in Woods's moment as he placed the medal around the golfer's neck. And after the Boston Red Sox visited the White House on May 9 - a trip that divided the team largely along racial lines -- the president took to Twitter, claiming credit for the team's recent on-field success.
"Has anyone noticed that all the Boston @RedSox have done is WIN since coming to the White House!" he wrote.
Trump has even moved to commandeer Washington's annual Fourth of July fireworks celebration, potentially transforming a celebration of the nation's independence into something closer to a "Make America Great Again" political rally.
Trump's relentlessness can be disorienting and frustrating, especially for his political rivals and critics. Alex Conant, a senior adviser to the failed 2016 presidential bid of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Trump "is either setting the agenda or commenting on it, but he's always in the story, and so when you're running against him, you're constantly finding yourself having to talk about things on his terms."
Conant said Trump's outsize impact on the national discourse was crystallized for him in the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, including a mass shooting at the Bataclan theater. Less than a month later, Trump called for a "total and complete" ban on Muslims entering the United States -- and, Conant said, "instead of the fact that hundreds of people died in the streets of Paris, we're talking about Trump again."
It is unsurprising, then, that Trump has also cast himself as the play-by-play announcer for the sprawling 2020 Democratic field, injecting his voice into a topic already gripping much of the country more than a year from Election Day. Speaking at a rally in Panama City Beach, Florida, earlier this month, Trump briefly adopted the tone of a television emcee, attempting to instruct the crowd on how to pronounce the last name of Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
"We have a young man, boot-edge-edge," said the president. "Edge-edge. They say edge-edge."
The same day, Trump offered his assessment of the race on social media, writing: "Looks to me like it's going to be SleepyCreepy Joe over Crazy Bernie. Everyone else is fading fast!"
There is evidence Trump's freewheeling assessments of the 2020 landscape are already trickling down to the electorate. Sandra Sanzone, 63, of Chillicothe, Ohio, is a Trump supporter who recently attended a Warren rally. In an interview, she adopted the president's nicknames, calling Biden "Sleepy Joe" and in a later conversation referred to him as "Creepy Joe."
"I've seen enough of Joe Biden touching women that he creeps me out, so I named him 'Creepy Joe,' too," she explained, referring to controversy over Biden's physical behavior toward women.
In an April interview with The Washington Post, Trump said he was watching the election closely. Citing his "very good political instinct," Trump said of Buttigieg: "I don't think he stands a chance."
The president also ranked those he viewed as the most likely Democratic victors.
"I would say that it'll be 'Sleepy Joe' against 'Crazy Bernie,' " he said. "Those will be the two finalists. I may be wrong about that, but I don't really care too much who it is. Whoever it is, we'll be ready."
On Thursday, after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio became the latest Democrat to enter the contest, Trump posted a video of himself aboard Air Force One critiquing the latest comer.
"It will never happen. I'm pretty good at predicting things like that," the president said, his expression veering between a furrowed brow and smirk. "I wish him luck, but really it'd be better off if you got back to New York City and did your job for the little time you have left."
Several academics say Trump's commentary may be aimed in part at keeping his core political base engaged, particularly those who relish Trump's bravado but have never cheered, for instance, the Republicans' tax law.
"He's turning politics from something that is intellectual and abstract to something really simple, keeping them charmed enough to support him," said Jon Krosnick, a professor at Stanford University who studies political communication and psychology. "He makes it accessible for them to be engaged, pitting good guys against bad guys."
The president's nicknames, for instance, help transform politics "from a complex, technical multiplayer debate" into something more basic and relatable, like sports or cable television, Krosnick said.
"How do you connect with someone in rural Pennsylvania without knowing what their life is about?" he said. "You grab onto the things you think will be in their life at that moment - make them think, 'He's sitting here with me, watching the same program I am.' "
Nonstop, bite-size news cycles, along with social media platforms such as Twitter, allow Trump to dominate the nation's discourse in a way that his predecessors could not.
"If Millard Fillmore wanted to express himself about his opponents or the weather or arcane aspects about life in America, he could have given a speech or given an interview, but it just wasn't there for the 24-hour-a-day type of communication from a president," said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian.
Trump is so entrenched in the minutiae of society that sometimes his interjections are inadvertent. In early May, the president griped on Twitter about special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, lamenting what he called the "stollen two years" of his presidency - misspelling the word "stolen" in an initial tweet. The typo turned his intended word into a German bread with dried fruits and nuts enjoyed at Christmastime - and the internet hummed with images and jokes about the confectionary treat.
Trump's sheer pervasiveness, Ellis said, makes a post-Trump world "kind of chilling to imagine."
"Where's the fun in that?" he asked. "Where's the laughter?"
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The Washington Post's Annie Linskey contributed to this report.
MONSEY, N.Y. - In a suburban shopping center an hour north of New York City, hundreds of mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered in a sex-partitioned ballroom to hear leaders of the national anti-vaccine movement.
Sustained applause greeted Del Bigtree, a former television producer-turned-activist who often wears a yellow star of David, similar to those required of Jews in Nazi Germany, to show solidarity with parents ordered to keep unvaccinated children at home.
Bigtree describedthe purported dangers ofchildhood vaccines in phrases that also conjured the Nazis.
"They have turned our children into the largest human experiment in history - all of history," he said.
The turnout last week in this suburb hard hit by measles helps explain why New York has become Ground Zero in one of this country's largest and longest-lasting measles outbreak in nearly 30 years. Even in a religious community grappling with more than 700 cases in Rockland County and New York City since last fall - among them, children on oxygen in intensive care units - anxious and confused parents said they came because they are afraid of vaccines and seeking guidance about what to do.
Ethan, a 36-year-old father of six from Queens who declined to give his last name, said he attended the event out of "a genuine concern" for his family, driven by his wife's research into vaccines. She had read "a lot of literature" and watched Bigtree's film, which accuses the government of covering up a purported link between the measles vaccine and autism - a tie repeatedly disproved by studies around the world involving hundreds of thousands of children.
As a result, Ethan said, measles frightened him far less than what Bigtree and others described as the toxic substances in vaccines.
"I love doctors," Ethan said, but they have "blind obedience" to the vaccine schedule. "God gave us a wonderful, beautiful body that heals itself."
State and national health officials say groups such as Bigtree's are directly responsible for the measles outbreaks that struck Orthodox communities here and in New York City this year. Through an aggressive social media campaign, pamphleting and traveling road shows that pop up in receptive and often insular communities, officials say, the anti-vaccine movement has produced pockets of unvaccinated children where the highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease can catch fire.
The groups' claims are flatly contradicted by science, but their rhetoric has sent vaccination rates plummeting across the country, including among Eastern European immigrants outside Portland, Oregon, the Somali community in Minnesota and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, and here in Rockland County - all groups that have seen recent outbreaks.
"This is a national movement of people who are nothing but charlatans, conspiracy theorists and people . . . spreading misinformation," said Rockland County Executive Ed Day. "The type of propaganda they spread is a danger to the health and safety of children within our community and around the world."
In many ways, vaccines are a victim of their own success. Years ago, people were intimately familiar with the suffering caused by diseases such as polio, whooping cough and measles. Today, they've been virtually eliminated - along with the memory of their terrible effects.
As a result, generations of parents have grown up "more likely to be scared of the vaccine than the disease," said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "It's very easy to appeal to those fears."
The modern anti-vaccine movement began about 40 years ago in response to legitimate concerns about the side effects of a pertussis vaccine. But it has metastasized into something far darkerin the echo chamber of Facebook chat rooms, WhatsApp and YouTube - especially against a backdrop of rising suspicion of elites, including drugmakers, doctors and public health officials.
Anti-vaccine activists have a rhetorical advantage: They speak with absolute certainty about frightening cases of so-called vaccine injuries based on changes parents say they observe in their children after getting shots.
Scientists and researchers, by contrast, rarely speak in absolutes. They say vaccines save countless lives, but like all medicines, have side effects - albeit rare ones. And they sometimes challenge what parents think they have seen with their own eyes by explaining that health problems such as autism often become apparent around the same time children are receiving multiple shots - even though there is no causal connection.
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The modern anti-vaccine movement began with the heartbreak of a mother in Virginia in 1980 that would propel her into activism.
Several hours after her eldest son - then 2 1/2 - got his fourth shot to prevent diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus, Barbara Loe Fisher said she found him staring straight ahead as if he couldn't see her. "When I called out his name, his eyelids fluttered, his eyes rolled back in his head, and his head fell to his shoulder," she recalled.
Fisher has written on her website that her son suffered a convulsion, collapse and brain inflammationand grew up with multiple learning disabilities. After seeing a television special on possible dangers of the DPT vaccine, Fishersuspected a link to the vaccine.
At the time, the pertussis component of the vaccine was made with many more proteins than other childhood vaccines, and had a significant risk of side effects, including fever and in some cases, seizures. (The problem was corrected in newer versions of the vaccine.)
Fisher became a national advocate, warning parents about possible risks and working with Congress to craft legislation creating a vaccine compensation program and an improved vaccine monitoring system - one of severalsafety systems still in use.
Today, the National Vaccine Information Center in Sterling, Virginia, which she founded, is considered one of the most effective lobbyists for parental choice, combating efforts in New York and other states to make it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their children.
"We don't tell people what to do," Fisher said in a recent interview. "We support informed voluntary medical decisions that people make. We do not tell people to vaccinate or not to vaccinate."
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In 1998, the Lancet, a respected British medical journal, published a paper that would cause the anti-vaccine movement to explode. The paper, by gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield and other authors, claimed to have found a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism in eight children.
The paper was later found to be fraudulent. Wakefield's fellow authors issued a retraction. So did the Lancet after an investigation by British medical authorities. Wakefield was stripped of his medical license after a panel concluded that he had financial and ethical conflicts of interest and had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly."
But the damage was done. MMR vaccination rates plunged in Britain, Ireland, the United States and other countries at a time of rising concern about autism diagnoses.
To many parents, Wakefield's thesis seemed believablebecause symptoms of autism first appear when children are about 12 months old - the same age they receive their first MMR vaccine, said Alison Singer, a New York City mother with a severely autistic daughter.
"Up until Wakefield, no one had really put the two together," said Singer, who now heads the Autism Science Foundation, which supports research into the condition's causes.
Twenty-one studies since that Lancet study have found no relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism. The latest and largest, from Denmark, involved 657,461 Danish children born between 1999 and 2010.
In the intervening years, researchers have implicated genetic and environmental factors in autism, such as older fathers and infections during pregnancy. Scientists now believe that more than 100 genes affect an individual's risk for autism, said Josh Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.
"About 15 to 20 percent of people with diagnoses of autism can now be told by their doctors why they have it," Gordon said.
Despite all the subsequent research, Wakefield's discredited ideas have become firmly entrenched in anti-vaccine mythology.
"Once you put a scary thought in someone's head, it's very hard to get it out," Singer said.
The notion that vaccines are implicated in autism and a host of other medical conditions is now championed by an increasingly organized anti-vaccine movement that includes at least a dozen national organizations and hundreds of Facebook groups, many of them private. Many cast themselves as promoting individual and parental rights and fighting government overreach - a cause that resonates with individuals across the political spectrum.
High-profile leaders such as Bigtree, founder of Informed Consent Action Network in Austin, and environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the nephew of president John F. Kennedy, crisscross the country railing against vaccine dangers and advocating for parental choice.
Bigtree, the son of a minister, is a charismatic speaker who draws large crowds at wellness conferences and state legislative hearings. A former daytime television producer for "The Doctors," he said he became a vaccine safety advocate after hearing from so many aggrieved parents after partnering with Wakefield on a movie about Wakefield's theories.
"The moment we began expanding the vaccination program, our health has been declining in our children," Bigtree said recently on a weekly live show he distributes on Facebook and YouTube. He says he has more than 140,000 Facebook followers and more than 50 million video views.
Kennedy's interest in vaccines grew out of his advocacy work on environmental pollutants.He accuses drugmakers of colluding with the health establishment to cover up vaccines's alleged role in rising rates of a gamut of chronic diseases and even teen suicide - claims rejected by the American Academy of Pediatrics and virtually every leading health and science organization in the world.
In January 2017, Kennedy stunned the medical establishment by announcing that then-President-elect Trump had asked him to lead a commission looking at vaccines and autism - a subject Trump had mentioned repeatedly on the campaign trail.
But the White House never went forward with the commission. And last month, when U.S. measles cases reached a record high, Trump urged parents to "get the shots" for their children.
In an extraordinary public rebuke this month, three members of Kennedy's family - including his brother, a former congressman, and his sister, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland - accused Kennedy of being "part of a misinformation campaign that's having heartbreaking - and deadly - consequences."
"We love Bobby . . . We stand behind him in his ongoing fight to protect our environment," they wrote. "However, on vaccines he is wrong."
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Most Americans continue to support immunizations, as evidenced by high national vaccination rates, but there are worrisome trends: The percentage of children younger than 2 who haven't received any vaccinations, for instance, has quadrupled since 2001, according to the CDC.
And in more than a dozen hot spots across the country, including the Seattle and Portland areas, which have had measles outbreaks, immunization rates have plunged asan increasing number of parents receive nonmedical exemptions to avoid having to give their children the shots, according to a study last year.
The link between places with low vaccination rates and measles outbreaks is clear: In some of Williamsburg's yeshivas, for instance, up to 22 percent of children did not receive the MMR vaccine for religious reasons during the 2017-2018 school year, according to New York state data.
Anti-vaccine activists encourage that trend by arguing that the vaccine is potentially more dangerous than the disease.
At the Monsey forum, Rabbi Hillel Handler called resistance to measles shots a brave act. The virus, which once killed several hundred Americans every year, "is not a serious disease," he said, adding that those who battle it in childhood grow up stronger.
Public health officials are trying to fight back. They note that children who've recovered from measles are more susceptible to infections and are at risk for serious complications.
In the Brooklyn neighborhoods at the heart of the New York City outbreak, nurse practitioner Blima Marcus holds regular meetingswith small groups of ultra-Orthodox women in their homes, spending hours answering their questions. As a member of the same Orthodox community, Marcus says it is easier for her to gain their trust.
Often, she said, the women are surprised by the scientific studies she brings that disprove links between the measles vaccine and autism. Afterward, some tell her they feel they've been "really misled."
"These are insular women who are trying to do the best for their children," Marcus said. "At the end of the day, I feel the majority of people who don't vaccinate are the victims of a one-way propaganda machine."
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The Washington Post's Lenny Bernstein contributed to this report.