So, the reviews for Trump’s address to congress are in, ‘hopeful’ seems to be the general consensus. The Times, the British one, headlined ‘Trump struck an upbeat tone’. Positive I guess, The Daily Telegraph said that Donald Trump ‘finds his presidential voice’. NRC, my preferred Dutch daily, noted that Trump ‘moderated his tone, but not his message’, The Netherlands’ most prominent correspondent in the U.S said it was both ‘moderated and optimistic’. Even The Washington Post has gone as far as saying the address was ‘optimistic’.
From these headlines one might think that Trump has finally taken a more presidential stand, the glass may be half full again. As I had not yet seen the address myself, I committed myself to not forming any opinion yet, however, one can’t help but go in with a little hope.
So, I’m back and I’ve now seen it and let me say, the address was not the U-turn I hoped it would be, not even a kink in the road, and, to stretch the traffic analogy even further, I don’t think he even crossed lanes. I just noticed another fun analogy in past week’s Banyan column in the Economist. Banyan describes Duterte’s attitude to America not as a pivot but as a pirouette. Without diving into the scope of that article; Trump’s address may be nothing more than a pirouette, not the pivot many acclaim it to be. Still, it seems a little abundant to give Mr. Trump anything other than some style points.
Positive at first, then America first
Hinting at his low approval ratings, it seems natural Trump wanted to change his tune to better fit the formality of such an occasion. The address to congress has, after all, always been a presidential and formal affair. His message was brought ‘deeply from his heart’ and was one of ‘unity and strength’, signalling a ‘new chapter of American greatness’. After noting that his presidency was called upon by a ‘chorus that finally became an earthquake’, he switched to his harsh America First agenda, albeit using different words. Of course, in his speech on ‘unity and strength’, he mentioned only those who ‘came in unity’ to vote for Trump, forgetting the majority of, somehow, non-united voters that did not cast their vote in favor of Trump.
Although he did not mention such things as an ‘American carnage’, the U.S was once again portrayed as a country that is ridden by foreign criminals and terrorists. The U.S is seemingly riddled with foreigners hoping to blow it up as he calls for an America that is not ‘a sanctuary for extremists’. In this rhetoric, Trump forgot about the recent advice by his national security adviser, who contemplated that he should refrain from using the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. Something that I should note as truly positive – especially as a European – is Trump’s renewed commitment to NATO, which he had called ‘obsolete’ on previous occasions.
As the tirade went on, Trump pledged for the rest of his America First program; immigration, infrastructure, workers, tax cuts etc… However, once again stating all these things is a little superfluous and does not do justice to the nature of this article. What should be noted, however, is the absence of certain things. Some good, some bad. It was refreshing to not see him divulge in hopeless media bashing or the praising of his electoral college victory. However, the absence of such topics as the environment, budget deficits and Russia is alarming.
‘Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. Thank you.’ For many, the moment that stood out was Trump’s tribute to William Ryan Owens, a former Navy Seal who died in a raid in Yemen. ‘He died as he lived, a warrior and a hero’ Trump noted, making for an emotional ending to his speech. However, and I hate to kill the mood, Trump did not mention that Ryan’s parents, who were present, did not accept an invitation to speak with Mr. Trump as they deemed the raid unnecessary. Liberals, evidently, called this tribute a distraction to make sure the press wouldn’t ask too sharp questions.
So, in conclusion
This was, without a doubt, Trump’s most presidential speech. Charlie Mahteslan noted; ‘If that wasn’t Donald Trump, and we weren’t waiting for something wild to happen, that would have been a very standard, boring speech.’ Which is partly true, he did not diverge from the script as it was brought on the teleprompter and he restrained from any attacks on the press or the judiciary. Points for rhetoric are in check.
All in all, Trump knows he represents a large share of the middle class and Trump knows that the Republicans need those voters to pass their proposals. As long as Trump doesn’t do anything too out of the ordinary, Republicans will stand up and applaud. And as long as Trump promotes his America First agenda, Democrats won’t.