What I heard from President Trump in his speech Tuesday night was a greatest-hits compilation of campaign promises he has no earthly way to keep. “Dying industries will come roaring back to life,” he vowed. Gleaming new roads, bridges and airports will magically materialize. Health care will be better, cheaper and available to all. Terrorism, crime, poverty and even drug addiction will cease to plague our soon-to-be-great-again land.
What I didn’t hear was anything to reassure the nation that its fate is in competent hands.
Trump’s speech won praise for being “presidential,” but only from those grading him on an absurdly generous curve. It should not be remarkable that the highest elected official of the richest and most powerful nation on earth managed to get through an hour-long speech without foaming at the mouth. Two-bit banana republics set a higher bar.
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I do give Trump credit for one laugh-out-loud funny line: “The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us.” This high-minded sentiment came from a man who used his appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast to taunt Arnold Schwarzenegger about his ratings as Trump’s replacement on “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
And there was one truly genuine and unforgettable moment: The sustained ovation for Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in the Trump administration’s first counterterrorism operation, a raid in Yemen.
But what else could anyone take seriously? Certainly not the president’s basic premise that he inherited a nation in dire straits. Unemployment as of January was 4.8 percent. Violent crime is near historical lows nationwide, though a few cities, including Chicago, are tragic exceptions. What once was a flood of undocumented migrants coming across the border from Mexico has become a trickle. And through a combination of vigilance and good fortune, we have not suffered a major attack by terrorist groups on U.S. soil since 9/11.
Much of Trump’s speech, then, was devoted to solving problems that do not actually exist. He wants to give huge tax cuts to corporations as a way of creating jobs. He is forming a Justice Department task force on crime. He swore for the umpteenth time to build “a great, great wall along our southern border.” And he called for the strictest possible vetting of visa applicants from countries afflicted by terrorism – which is what already takes place.
If he wanted to, Trump could just declare victory now on all these fronts and then turn to other matters. But that would require setting actual policy rather than just talking and tweeting.
The closest the president came to actual substance in the speech was in discussing health care. Unless you were listening very carefully, you probably just heard Trump’s usual it’s-gonna-be-awesome description of what replaces the Affordable Care Act: “reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time provide better health care.” This imaginary program probably washes and waxes your car, too.
But House Speaker Paul Ryan surely noticed that Trump used the phrases “tax credits” and “expanded Health Savings Accounts” – both of which are elements of the framework Ryan supports as a starting point for a replacement program. The problem for Ryan is that both Democrats and conservative Republicans reject his approach, so the kind words from the president may not matter.
After reportedly suggesting in an off-the-record lunch with television anchors that he might propose a version of comprehensive immigration reform, with some sort of legal status for the millions of law-abiding undocumented immigrants, Trump did nothing of the sort. In fact, he went back to demonizing the undocumented as dangerous criminals, announcing a new victims-services office infelicitously named VOICE – Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement.
And as for sounding presidential, how about this passage? “Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people, and America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path. My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.”
All recent presidents have focused instead on the inalienable human rights of individuals and have criticized governments whose “own path” is to trample those rights. All recent presidents have believed the United States can and must play a special role in the world as a beacon of freedom.
Trump said he wants an America “not burdened by our fears” – after spending an hour stoking those fears. Even when he uses his indoor voice, he doesn’t sound much like a president.
Eugene Robinson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.