By Scott Robertson
The Atlantic was perhaps the most polite in its review of Donald Trump’s performance in Abingdon last week. The Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center show by the performance artist who has captivated American media by mocking the presidential campaign process was described on theatlantic.com as, “uncharacteristically quiet.”
It was less like watching an actual performance and more like watching a sound check. Imagine a Rolling Stones show where they only played the slow songs. Ironically, the best words to describe the performance are probably, “low energy.” Later that day in another city, Trump would accuse Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of being the founders of ISIS, before eventually backtracking by saying it was, “sarcasm.” But there was no such fire in his belly in Abingdon.
As campaign speeches go, it was a mess. It wasn’t even a hot mess. It was a lukewarm rehash of tired political clichés, lies that people want to believe, and cheap-pop lines. It was a disjointed chain-of-consciousness ramble that a public speaking coach would have generously given a D-. It opened no new ground. It made no new specific promises or explanations.
Generally when a campaign speech is overlong and boring, it’s because the speech is burdened by tiresome details about some policy or another. Bill Clinton, for instance, could go on about minutiae ad nauseum. Trump, however, managed to deliver an overlong, underinteresting message without going into specific detail on much of anything. It was, at least in that respect, impressive.
It was clear from the start that Trump had either put in no show-prep time, or that his shtick today would be that he was a lazy candidate. He had either forgotten the names of every individual he was supposed to acknowledge, or he pretended to have. The event was to have started with Trump receiving a token of appreciation from coal company executives, whom Trump would introduce. Here’s how that went.
“There’s a representative, actually three representatives, from the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance and I think they’re going to come up and I’m supposed to introduce them and I hope they’re going to be very exciting people so we can keep everybody happy. Come on up, folks.”
In other words, I told you before the show I didn’t want anybody but me on the podium, but you want to steal a couple of minutes of my spotlight? Fine. But you’d better deliver.
Unfortunately, one of the dignitaries was 95 years old, so they were slow getting onstage. Trump looked the other way for a while, then ad-libbed, “They are exciting people, look at them.”
Just so, when Trump was to acknowledge the presence of Virginia’s 9th District Congressman, Morgan Griffith, he never referred to Griffith by name. Trump’s endorsement of Griffith? “This guy’s a genius right over here.”
Rather than review the whole speech, which ran just short of an hour, let us just focus in detail on the first ten minutes, when Trump stayed on-message. He began by quoting himself from a New York campaign appearance in which he had said, “We are going to put the miners back to work.”
Here’s the problem. Even if we were to have an actual Republican in the White House, and I don’t see one running, there’s no coming back for coal. The damage to the coal industry from the three-headed monster of lower worldwide demand, lower natural gas prices and the Obama administration EPA’s regulatory onslaught has done its damage already. The power companies are not building more coal-fired plants.
I was there four years ago when the CEO of Dominion Power cut the ribbon on the Virginia City plant in St. Paul. He called the plant, “the last dinosaur,” and said it was the last coal-fired plant Dominion would ever build. He stood in coal country and said that. Four years ago. Power companies don’t want coal back and they haven’t wanted it for some time. The government would have to force them to use it.
The Department of Energy released a report earlier this year that said if the Obama EPA’s regulations (which the Supreme Court rejected) were to be reinstated, America’s coal industry would shrink by another third. But the telling thing was that the report said the best-case scenario will be for coal to stay where it is today.
Nobody’s putting the miners back to work, and Donald Trump knows it. But the candidate he’s playing on television needs votes in Virginia to combat the Tim Kaine gambit, so off Trump went, promising the sun, the moon, and wide-open black seams, ripe for the taking. “We’re gonna bring ‘em back, folks. We’re gonna bring ‘em back…These are great people. They’re great Americans.”
Then Trump took a breath and released a word salad to make Sarah Palin envious. “They love this country, and if I get in (holds up a sign reading ‘Trump Digs Coal’), this is what it is, okay, and, and other forms of energy, all forms of energy, but what they have done to the miners is incredible in the Obama administration and you remember, and I think you might have just seen it, yeah, now what they’ve done, and, nobody knows, you know, clean coal, and nobody knows why.”
Glad we cleared that up.
Then Trump referred to a Hillary Clinton statement that she would put mines out of business, hoping for a big pop from the crowd. Trump quoted Clinton, then said, “She forgot about West Virginia when she said that!” After a moment, he realized his gaffe and said, “She forgot about Virginia too, in all fairness.”
At that point, it appeared Trump either forgot whatever else it was he was supposed to say about coal or just got bored with it because he pivoted to Hillary Clinton’s emails. The rest of his speech ran from talking point to talking point in a haphazard fashion, often using cheap pop lines like, “We have the greatest people anywhere in the world here,” as transitions.
Because he was ad libbing, Trump’s delivery was not crisp. Run-on sentences earned “26.2” stickers.
Topics included, but were not limited to: Rob Blagojevich, the dishonesty of the media, voter ID, the rigged election system, the Second Amendment, his rivals from the primaries, the Iran deal, Tim Kaine’s slim margins of victory in previous elections, the bad economic conditions of upstate New York, the foibles of NAFTA, the proposed wall on the Mexican border, the corruption of special interests, the importance of small campaign donations, the success of Bernie Sanders, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, how he started the revitalization of New York City (“I don’t wanna brag about it, but…”), the relative brevity of Hillary Clinton’s speeches, how NATO needs to pay more for U.S. protection, why NATO needs to focus more on terrorism, his own real estate holdings in Virginia, the heroin problem in New Hampshire, the failings of the V.A. system, Obamacare, the need for better roads and highways, the mistake of invading Iraq and Common Core.
Less than a week after the Abingdon address, Trump tweeted that he “always” stays on-message. He really does have a way with sarcasm after all.