Donald Trump clearly knows how to communicate with his ardent followers, but in every other way, he is a weirdly awkward speaker.
His speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree was a political rant infused with towel-snapping locker room banter that got him in hot water with scout leaders and parents. After the chaos that accompanied the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., his twice-emphasized comment that "many sides" were responsible for the violence earned him widespread criticism from even his fellow Republicans. Then, in a Trump Tower press conference that was supposed to be about infrastructure, he stepped all over his policy message by delivering an angry defense of his Charlottesville faux pas.
Last Tuesday, the president visited hurricane-ravaged Texas and everyone waited to see if his big mouth would get him into trouble again.
In comments during a meeting with Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott and other officials, he sounded a bit like a master of ceremonies thanking the organizing committee of a banquet. Other presidents might have mentioned some of the victims of the storm, but not Mr. Trump. He just promised, in his competitive way, that the disaster response would be "better than ever before. We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now, as this is the way to do it."
And then, when he strolled outside to face a group of citizens, he could not resist slipping into his core brain frequency where all that matters are large crowds and high ratings.
"What a crowd, what a turnout," Mr. Trump declared. The derision online quickly ensued.
Mr. Trump's obsession with crowd size and his signature use of superlatives, such as "historic," "epic," "tremendous," "the biggest ever," draw a lot of flak from his critics — so much so that they risk crossing the line into overkill. Picking on the president for his every gaffe reinforces his supporters' contention that "elites" in the mainstream media and the liberal punditocracy are unable to judge Mr. Trump without reflexive bias. How many times have we heard Trump supporters say they like him because he says what's on their minds? That being the case, picking on Mr. Trump for his use of language is a direct insult to all those who are perfectly pleased with the way he talks.
Still, it is hard to stifle the fascination and frequent shock that Mr. Trump's artless and undisciplined use of language instills because, after all, he is president of the United States. His words have consequences.
Mr. Trump's tiny vocabulary reveals an uncomplicated intellect. For him, things are good, bad or "sad" (one of his favorite words). If you are not on his side, you are an enemy to be belittled in terminology fit for a junior high playground. If you are with him, you are the best, most capable and accomplished person ever, until you fail him in any tiny way. Then you are a loser.
Mr. Trump may have an empathetic impulse buried inside him somewhere, but, if so, he hides it well. His Texas visit was comparatively free of tone-deaf rhetoric, but he said nothing inspirational. Barack Obama was eloquent in times of national suffering. Bill Clinton expressed a true human touch in similar times. And Ronald Reagan had a way with words that tugged at heartstrings and put a lump in the throat of every patriot. Mr. Trump does not have that skill or inclination.
When on script, Mr. Trump's voice is bland and passionless. When he is talking off-the-cuff, he cannot resist slipping into self-congratulation, braggadocio, insults or threats. Presidents do not all have to be articulate speakers. Dwight Eisenhower was hardly a great orator and George W. Bush sometimes had trouble finding his way to the end of a sentence. But, whatever their verbal skills, Mr. Bush and Eisenhower and other presidents found their individual ways to project a sense of engagement in endeavors greater than themselves.
With Mr. Trump, though, his words, however well or poorly delivered, always get back to one subject: Donald Trump.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.