President Trump assessed the 2020 Democratic primary field 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 speech last week ostensibly about energy policy in Hackberry, La. — 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, Fla., 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, Ind.
“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 A. 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 like 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 S. Mueller III’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?”
Annie Linskey contributed to this report.