Another day, another victim of Donald Trump’s vitriol, this time Pastor Faith Green Timmons from Flint, Michigan.

Trump was invited on Wednesday to the Bethel United Methodist Church in Flint to speak about the city’s water crisis, which has resulted in dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water, exposing Flint’s citizens to immeasurable health risks. Instead, Trump began attacking Hillary Clinton without any real context, prompting Pastor Timmons to politely remind him that there would be no politicking in her church and to urge him back on topic. The next day, Trump phoned into Fox & Friends to lash out at Timmons, calling her “so nervous, she was like a nervous wreck” and accusing her of “playing games”. He also claimed the audience had been chanting “let him speak” after Timmons intervened, whereas the video clearly shows the opposite: the pastor actually defends Trump from the heckles as the congregation turn against him.


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What is fascinating though if you watch the clip is not the confrontation itself (which only lasts a few seconds), but the atmosphere. The church congregation is clearly uncomfortable, and can be heard quietly muttering as Trump awkwardly tries to segue into one of his cookie-cutter tirades against the federal government. One woman interrupts to ask something inaudible (according to NBC she was asking about discriminatory housing practices in Trump’s buildings), and Trump is visibly thrown, stammering “No I never, never would, never would”. He appears wooden, stilted, reading his remarks about the Flint water crisis in a dull monotone. In the clip it looks like it takes physical effort for Trump to stay on message and not launch into his standard rally speech about building walls and banning Muslims. He loses his place. His rhythm and intonation are off. He seems to struggle to lower his voice to the level appropriate in a church hall as opposed to a packed stadium.

None of this would matter, of course, if Trump had not built his entire campaign on his ability to connect with America’s working class, to fire up stadiums with his rhetoric and to engage the people mainstream politics has forgotten. You don’t get more forgotten than Flint, one of the poorest cities in America, whose citizens were so disenfranchised and neglected by the government that their basic need for clean water was compromised. (For anyone who thinks race and poverty had no role in the crisis, ask whether a contamination scandal of this severity would ever have been allowed to happen in New York or San Fransisco.) The congregation of the church in Flint are the victims of the globalisation Trump demonises so vehemently – he even tries to whip them up by condemning America’s trade deficit with China. But somehow, it fails to resonate. In a small room with no backup, no banners, no blaring loud-speaker anthems, forced to stay on topic and to address a dubious audience, Trump’s message falls flat.

Speaking at rallies is an important skill for a potential president to master – and one Hillary Clinton could certainly improve on. But it is also essential for a president to know how to listen, to read a crowd, to adapt the tone of a speech to suit the occasion. Listen to President Obama giving his eulogy for the victims of the Charleston shooting, compared to his world-famous campaign speeches. Trump just doesn’t have that versatility, and nor does he have the ability to connect with and convince an audience that is not already enthusiastically rooting for him.

Whether that’s a lack of empathy or eloquence, it’s a worrying trait. And the people of Bethel United Methodist Church deserved better.