Donald Trump’s first speech to a joint session of Congress was typical of such addresses. It was unusual for Trump in that it was clear, well-structured, and got most of the facts right — but like the average State of the Union, it was a mixed bag of gritty legislative proposals and pabulum. Let’s take a look at the hidden meanings behind the sweeping platitudes.
Trump’s mad dog persona is made up of nasty tweets, combative statements about the press as they enemy, and “alternative facts” (like getting the size of his electoral victory wrong). But in the end, it’s what he actually does through executive action and legislative priorities that will change the country. We got a look at some specifics last night, including the outlines of a plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Policymakers, pundits, and politicians will focus on those specifics, as they ought to, because that’s where the real battles will be fought.
But I’m looking at the rest of the speech, which is made up of applause lines and disingenuous outreach to the Democrats he’s been demonizing for months. Such entreaties in an address to Congress are commonplace, but the reveal a lot about Trump’s mindset. Let’s take a look at some excerpts from the transcript.
We’re against bad, nasty, hateful people
Trump opens by taking a stand against hate — sort of
Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our Nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains. Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.
Trump’s election came on the heels of repeated statements against Muslims and immigrants, and his key advisor Steve Bannon is a supporter of white nationalism. This is as sincere as Trump gets on fighting intolerance and race, but notice that while he condemns hate and division, he doesn’t actually condemn these racist acts. And there is nothing else in the speech that supports this idea of “condemning hate.” This is a Band-Aid on the scourge of racism that’s now come out of hiding.
We’re ready to be great
A new chapter of American Greatness is now beginning.
A new national pride is sweeping across our Nation.
And a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp.
What we are witnessing today is the Renewal of the American Spirit.
Rah. Rah. Rah. Get on with it.
Stuff is about to get wonderful
In his speech to the Republican National Convention last year, Trump made a series of passive promises about how life would become better when he was president. Those promises won him a Bullshitty Award. They make another appearance in this address (passives in bold):
Dying industries will come roaring back to life. Heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need.
Our military will be given the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve.
Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land.
Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and ultimately, stop.
And our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety, and opportunity.
We’ll all work together in harmony
After these generalities, Trump outlines a bunch of specific legislative priorities on the Obamacare replacement, immigration, and infrastructure. But then he shifts to generalities again with this:
Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing, and hope.
Our citizens deserve this, and so much more –- so why not join forces to finally get it done? On this and so many other things,
Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite for the good of our country, and for the good of the American people.
My administration wants to work with members in both parties to make childcare accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women’s health, and to promote clean air and clear water, and to rebuild our military and our infrastructure.
True love for our people requires us to find common ground, to advance the common good, and to cooperate on behalf of every American child who deserves a brighter future.
It would certainly be amazing if this most combative and divisive of presidents could cause Democrats and Republicans to unite. If that happens, they will most likely unite against him, rather than for childcare and women’s health. (I notice that he doesn’t mention Planned Parenthood.)
Police and city dwellers will join hands (except for dangerous illegal immigrants)
In what has to be a pattern, in this passage the generalities are warm and gentle, while the reality is mean and harsh:
Every American child should be able to grow up in a safe community, to attend a great school, and to have access to a high-paying job.
But to create this future, we must work with –- not against -– the men and women of law enforcement.
We must build bridges of cooperation and trust –- not drive the wedge of disunity and division.
Police and sheriffs are members of our community. They are friends and neighbors, they are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters – and they leave behind loved ones every day who worry whether or not they’ll come home safe and sound.
We must support the incredible men and women of law enforcement.
And we must support the victims of crime.
I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American Victims. The office is called VOICE –- Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement. We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.
Illegal immigrants concentrate in cities. If Trump wants people to have “cooperation and trust” with law enforcement, that’s going to be difficult if law enforcement is hard at work rooting out and deporting immigrants.
Enemies will become friends (who could that refer to?)
America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align. We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict.
We want peace, wherever peace can be found. America is friends today with former enemies. Some of our closest allies, decades ago, fought on the opposite side of these World Wars. This history should give us all faith in the possibilities for a better world.
Why bring up former enemies? The only reason is that we’re about to shift alliances. I wonder which former enemies this could refer to? Vladimir Putin, perhaps? Or . . . Bashar el-Assad?
Lift up your hearts
Think of the marvels we can achieve if we simply set free the dreams of our people.
Cures to illnesses that have always plagued us are not too much to hope.
American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream.
Millions lifted from welfare to work is not too much to expect.
And streets where mothers are safe from fear — schools where children learn in peace — and jobs where Americans prosper and grow — are not too much to ask.
When we have all of this, we will have made America greater than ever before. For all Americans.
This is our vision. This is our mission.
But we can only get there together.
We are one people, with one destiny.
We all bleed the same blood.
We all salute the same flag.
And we are all made by the same God.
And when we fulfill this vision; when we celebrate our 250 years of glorious freedom, we will look back on tonight as when this new chapter of American Greatness began.
The time for small thinking is over.
This is the end of a great speech. It’s uplifting and hopeful and unifying (unless you’re an atheist).
Regardless of how you see Trump, I think we can agree that he has been angry, bitter, defensive, and belittling throughout this campaign and in his first month as president. If this is a sign of a new, hopeful and optimistic Trump shining through, the next four years will be very different from the first month of his presidency.
So which is the aberration: this speech or his stiletto Twitter feed and combative press conference?
I think it’s the speech.