Why Trump’s weird rant about boats, batteries and sharks matters

Those of us who keep an eye on Donald Trump’s public appearances have come to expect certain rhetorical staples at the former president’s rallies. We know, for example, that the Republican is going to lie about a great many things. We know he’s going to complain about journalists covering the event. We know practically all his comments will be filtered through a lens of grievance, self-pity and self-aggrandizement.

But once in a while, Trump will say something so strange, it’s difficult to know not only what he’s talking about, but why in the world he said it in the first place.

Take yesterday, for example.

At a rally in Nevada, the presumptive GOP nominee told his followers that “they” are pursuing a policy that would mandate boat manufacturers use electric engines. In fact, Trump, who has long demonstrated a habit of sharing the details of conversations that only occurred in his mind, told the local audience that he’d spoken to an official at a boat company in South Carolina, who told him, “It’s a problem, sir. They want us to make all-electric boats.”

The former president added that the South Carolinian, who probably doesn’t exist, went on to tell him, “The problem is the boat is so heavy it can’t float. Also, it can’t go fast because of the weight.” Trump proceeded to share a variety of details about the practical limitations of requiring boat manufacturers to rely exclusively on battery engines.

Before we proceed, let’s note for the record that (a) this conversation probably never happened in reality; and (b) there is no policy in place requiring “all-electric boats.”

If we were to stop here, this would simply be a story about Trump telling an unbelievable tall tale about energy policy. Alas, we cannot stop here.

It’s a difficult quote to summarize, so I’ll just go ahead and quote the former president directly:

“So I said, ‘Let me ask you a question, and [the guy who makes boats in South Carolina] said, ‘Nobody ever asked this question,’ and it must be because of MIT, my relationship to MIT —very smart. He goes, I say, ‘What would happen if the boat sank from its weight? And you’re in the boat and you have this tremendously powerful battery and the battery is now underwater and there’s a shark that’s approximately 10 yards over there?’”

At this point, Trump apparently decided to pursue this tangent in earnest. “By the way, a lot of shark attacks lately, do you notice that, a lot of sharks?” he asked. “I watched some guys justifying it today. ‘Well, they weren’t really that angry. They bit off the young lady’s leg because of the fact that they were, they were not hungry, but they misunderstood what who she was.’ These people are crazy. He said there’s no problem with sharks. ‘They just didn’t really understand a young woman swimming now.’ It really got decimated and other people do a lot of shark attacks.”

And then he shifted back to his original story.

“So I said, so there’s a shark 10 yards away from the boat, 10 yards or here, do I get electrocuted if the boat is sinking? Water goes over the battery, the boat is sinking. Do I stay on top of the boat and get electrocuted, or do I jump over by the shark and not get electrocuted? Because I will tell you, he didn’t know the answer. He said, ‘You know, nobody’s ever asked me that question.” I said, ‘I think it’s a good question.’ I think there’s a lot of electric current coming through that water. But you know what I’d do if there was a shark or you get electrocuted, I’ll take electrocution every single time. I’m not getting near the shark. So we’re going to end that.”

Author Steven King noted last night, “This is like listening to your senile uncle at the dinner table after he has that third drink.” (I was also reminded of a classic Grandpa Simpson harangue.)

In terms of commentary and analysis, I’m not even sure where to start, though it’s worth emphasizing that Trump first started worrying about electrocuted boaters several months ago in a speech in Michigan. Those remarks, however, didn’t include any sharks.

We could also talk about the fact that Trump doesn’t really have a “relationship” with MIT, except for the fact that he had a relative teach there many years ago. We could note that Nevada is land-locked, making this an odd campaign message. While we’re at it, we could also spend some time explaining that boaters are not, in fact, electrocuted if their battery-operated boat sinks.

I’m also tempted to put in a call to the Trump campaign, asking whether the candidate also believes the shark would similarly be electrocuted if his scenario were real, but I have a hunch I wouldn’t get a response.

But there’s one overriding detail that I found myself thinking about after watching the clip. It was the final six words: “So we’re going to end that.”

It occurred to me that if voters return Trump to the White House, he would likely deploy a group of officials to work on the boat/battery/shark issue and expect them to report back on their progress.

Three months into Trump’s presidency, Politico had a report on the internal turmoil in the White House. “If you’re an adviser to him, your job is to help him at the margins,” one confidante said at the time. “To talk him out of doing crazy things.” Four months later, Axios had a related piece, citing a half-dozen “dismayed” senior administration officials, exasperated by the then-president’s dangerous instincts. “You have no idea how much crazy stuff we kill,” one said.

In a second term, this would almost certainly be worse.