Opinion

The Devil on Trump’s Shoulder and in the Country’s Ear

What I learned from sitting through Trump’s midterm blitz: his better angels must be pretty discouraged

President Donald Trump’s zigzagging feels a lot like the angel-devil gag in those old cartoons — except not everyone is laughing, Curtis writes. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s a setup in many cartoons and films of days past: The protagonist is presented with a moral dilemma, and gets conflicting advice from a devil perched on one shoulder and an angel on the other. The behavior of Donald Trump in a presidency filled with choices reminds me of those scenes, though his angel must be downright depressed by now.

The latest appeal to the president’s “better angels” worked for a little while as he reacted to the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the apparently race-based fatal shootings of two black shoppers in Kentucky and a series of bombs sent to people on his enemies list.

Then the devil’s horns peeked through, culminating in a promise this week to rescind birthright citizenship by executive order, a move most legal experts judge unconstitutional, though it wrestles headlines away from the horrific events of the past week and back onto the divisive immigration issue Trump judges a political winner.

“This wicked act of mass murder is pure evil,” Trump said after Pittsburgh. It’s “hard to believe and, frankly, something that is unimaginable,” though earlier he had said an armed guard could have prevented the carnage. At a Saturday night Illinois rally in a day of appearances that he chose not to cancel, the president said, “The scourge of anti-Semitism cannot be ignored, cannot be tolerated, and it cannot be allowed to continue,” before returning to campaign mode at the crowd’s urging.

In Indiana earlier that day, his campaign played the song “Happy,” which prompted artist Pharrell Williams, who got the day’s mood even if Trump did not, to tell the president to just stop it.

It’s that back-and-forth — hope for a brighter tone followed by disappointment — that has the country, as well as that angel, exhausted and resigned.

The angel has left the coliseum

I attended his rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Friday night, before Saturday’s attack but after a suspect in the bombing plot had been arrested. It was also after the Kentucky shooting, about which Trump said, as far as I know, very little. He came to North Carolina, ostensibly to campaign for Republican House candidate Mark Harris, in a competitive 9th District contest with Democrat and military veteran Dan McCready, and incumbent GOP congressman Ted Budd, in his 13th District race against Democrat Kathy Manning.

Trump did not dwell on the bombs or the suspect arrested by the intelligence services he has insulted, though he started with the strong statement that “political violence must never ever be allowed in America.” He seemed more comfortable when he returned to free-wheeling form, blaming the politics of “personal destruction” on Democrats looking to score points and on the media, of course, which “has a major role to play” in restoring civility, he said, “whether they want to or not.”

He knows his crowd.

Most were there to see and hear Trump, and reacted on cue to his familiar themes instead of considering the seriousness of the attacks directed at presidents, high-ranking present and former government officials, a Democratic party supporter and an opinionated movie star.

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They booed at the mention of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, shouted “lock her up” when he dropped Hillary Clinton’s name, and chanted “build the wall,” becoming demonstrably louder and more animated when the president blamed Democrats for encouraging “millions” of illegal immigrants to enter the United States to receive free health care and welfare. “They want to sign them up for the right to vote,” he said.

The claims, as well as previous promises of a middle-class tax cut before the midterms and support for health care offering protections he and his party have opposed, were pulled out of thin air — or a carefully constructed political playbook — and cheered by the crowd.

The angel had definitely left Bojangles’ Coliseum by then.

‘Nasty, stinking mouth’

The specifics did not matter to the Charlotte audience, many of whom wore red MAGA caps or T-shirts reading “In God We Trump” or ones that compared the 45th president to Abraham Lincoln.

Michael Nixon, a 51-year-old middle school English teacher from Gaston County wrapped in red, white and blue, saw a chance “to see a president up close.” And though he “wouldn’t tweet the stupid stuff he tweets,” he said he likes Trump’s “nationalist tone” that “makes Americans feel better.”

Nixon called Trump “like a regular guy with money. If I had money I would be kind of goofy, too.” He was disappointed in but resigned to the partisan divide, saying, “I don’t think you’re going to change anybody,” and like everyone I talked with, said he thought the president’s attacks are justified because “he is attacked,” not believing that, as president, he had a greater duty to rise above it all.

The North Carolina officials who served as Trump’s opening act or guests vied to see who could most closely channel Trump, with Budd and Harris rivaling one another in their praise of the president and GOP Sen. Thom Tillis calling the president a “positive disrupter.”

They are all Trump now, echoing his lines and his attitude. Patriotism has been defined down to nationalism, in Trump’s words and in the crowd’s signs and chants.

Though the loudest voices were male and white, a fair share of women attended. (Trump said, as he often does, that he won the women’s vote, though he actually won just 41 percent when all women, instead of just white women, are counted.)

The women who showed were among his biggest fans.

“I believe he has all the angles,” said Margaret Devincentz, 40, from Fort Mill, South Carolina, who votes for all Republicans. “He did what he said he was going to do,” she said, on the issues important to her, including religious freedom, Second Amendment rights and building the wall.

Sharon Long, from Charlotte, called all Democrats socialists, thinks “they’ve done nothing but lie and sabotage the president,” and believes they, not Trump admirer Cesar Sayoc, are behind the bombs sent to many of the critics name-checked in his speech that very night. Long identifies herself as a conservative Christian who “wants God back in the country — when Trump moved the embassy back to Jerusalem, it was prophetic.”

She admitted with just the slightest sheepishness that she is a believer in many of the conspiracy theories she reads on Infowars, where she said she gets much of her information. That includes the disproven belief that George Soros, a donor to progressive causes and politicians and the first Trump critic to receive a terrorist’s bomb, is behind everything from the migrants making their way through Mexico to Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

Long, who said, “I would have voted for Charles Manson before I voted for Hillary,” loves “everything” about Trump, “including his nasty, stinking mouth.”

The devil you say.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.Watch: 25 Ratings Changes Less Than a Week Before Midterms

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