A Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington Cemetery would not normally be the kind of event where one would expect to see a person reveal a hitherto unknown talent for song and dance. Yet that’s precisely what President Donald J. Trump did for America on Monday. As if possessed by the spirit of the late Jimmy Cagney, Trump gave a proper Yankee Doodle of a performance to the tune of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. If critics needed an opportunity to say that there’s something odd about this president’s behaviour, then this surely was that opportunity.
It all began normally enough. The ceremony’s announcer had asked the crowd to join ‘the United States air force band in singing our national anthem’ but there was no indication of what was to come as Trump stood silently with his hand placed, as is custom, over his heart. He swayed a little at first, as the band began to play, but who doesn’t? Standing still is harder than it looks and Trump seems to have a lively zest for life that’s hard to contain.
Soon, however, the swaying grew more pronounced. What began as a man impatient with life’s ceremonies turned into the kind of shoulder dance that slightly shy uncles perform at the periphery of a teenager’s party. Yet, if that had been the end of the performance, it might be considered strange but not unusual. It was not, however, the end of the performance…
Trump’s head was already bouncing by the time of the ‘twilight’s last gleaming’ but after ‘the perilous fight’ his fingers visibly started to tap out the rhythm. Yet it was something about the anthem’s tenth line — ‘ the bombs bursting in air’ — that really seemed to ignite the President’s enthusiasm as he began to sing lines with varying degrees of enthusiasm. He wasn’t so keen to sing about ‘the home of the free’ (he just seemed to blurt out ‘free’) but he was clearly happy to punctuate the line with a forceful ‘brave’. It was a strange spectacle, with an upper body motion that wouldn’t have been out of place had Stevie Wonder been accompanying him on the piano.
When it was over, Trump gave one of those big grins that he can often save him in an embarrassing moment. Yet not, perhaps, this time. Again, it’s worth noting that all this happened at a ceremony commemorating America’s war dead. At a time when everybody speaks about the optics of this presidency, this, surely, the most optically challenged. His critics might reasonably argue that the president didn’t dance on the graves of America’s fallen heroes but he perhaps did the next worse thing. He showed a complete lack of respect, failing to gauge the symbolism of the moment as well as his role as president.
Trump’s defenders (and, despite everything we’re learning about Russia, he still has a few) took to Twitter to support the President. The impromptu song and dance proved how much he loves America, they argued with the kind of forgiveness that you can be sure they’d never once afford his predecessor. They might have a point except this was really a context that demanded that the president follow the model of his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who stood parade-ground still and displayed the dignity one would expect at such an important moment.
Any way you cut this: the President is beginning to act odd and reasons should be sought when the most powerful man on the planet starts to behave this unpredictably.
There have been rumours circulating, usually by Trump opponents, that the President is unwell, suffering from the early signs of some form of dementia. Others argue that Trump is affecting these symptoms in order to establish a dementia defence should the time ever come when he is impeached. The more simple truth might well be that Trump is Trump and to remind ourselves that he won on the back of moments which are uniquely ‘Trump’ and which have continued into his presidency: the sulk when meeting Merkel; the strange handshake he shared with Macron; the Tweets, such as accusing another president of illegal surveillance. Then we have the strange ranting press conference in February, the obsession over crowds, and that crass speech in front of the CIA’s memorial wall.
Yet what makes this different is that so many of Trump’s odd behaviour can be explained in terms of politics. Trump’s distrust of Germany can be set into the context of his larger doubts about NATO and the commitment of European countries to their own defence. The meeting with Macron, similarly, can be read in terms Macron representing a defeat for the Right whose previous success was so obviously symbolised by Trump. Even his hostility towards Obama makes sense given Trump’s low approval ratings and the way that Obama is still cheered wherever he appears around the globe. This little dance, however, has no political context.
Psychologists wisely refuse to diagnose the president at a distance (though a few wanting headlines seem happy to do just that) and, until there is evidence to suggest otherwise, nothing about Trump’s behaviour is that far beyond what is his ‘normal’. What Monday’s performance does do, however, is underline the degree to which Trump still fails to understand the seriousness of his office. His casual disregard for the solemnity of Memorial Day, his almost childlike glee at the sound of the band, might well be one of the more revealing moments of this presidency so far. Is he ready for the political battles that are to come? Does he have the emotional maturity to face the accusations currently being prepared by serious adults?
Perhaps it’s worth drawing a chalk circle around yesterday: a day worth remembering given what might come next.