After a tumultuous and divisive year in office, Donald Trump has the opportunity for a fresh start with his first State of the Union address Tuesday. The president can surprise those who think the worst of him, and prove that he’s been underestimated. All he has to do is apologize to his fellow Americans for the shame he’s brought upon this country, and resign effectively immediately.
Since that’s not going to happen, I’m begging my fellow pundits not to get too excited should Trump manage to read from a teleprompter without foaming at the mouth or saying anything overtly racist. No matter how well Trump delivers the lines in his State of the Union – announced theme: “Building a safe, strong and proud America” – he will not become presidential. There will be no turning of corners or uniting the country. At best, Trump will succeed in impersonating a minimally competent leader for roughly the length of an episode of “The Apprentice.” And if he does, recent history suggests that he will be praised as the second coming of Lincoln.
During Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress last February, there was a moment when he singled out the widow of William Owens, a Navy SEAL known as Ryan who’d been killed in a raid in Yemen the month before. “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity,” Trump said, as the cameras lingered on the widow’s tear-streaked face. He let the applause continue for more than a minute and a half, then said, “Ryan is looking down right now, you know that, and he’s very happy, because I think he just broke a record.”
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The president’s words struck me as grossly presumptuous, as if any sort of record applause at Trump’s big speech redeemed Owens’ death. Trump had ordered the botched raid in which Owens was killed, and Owens’ father had refused to meet with the president when his son’s body was returned.
But some observers were deeply moved. “He did something tonight that you cannot take away from him – he became president of the United States,” gushed liberal pundit Van Jones after Trump’s speech. You’d “have to be dead not to appreciate the moment” said David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former chief strategist. Chris Cillizza, then at The Washington Post, wrote that the speech was proof that Trump “can be, dare I say it, presidential when the moment demands it.”
Of course, it wasn’t. Instead, it proved that Trump can be a showman when the moment demands it, particularly if expectations are low and he’s reading from a script. A few days after Trump was celebrated for his new seriousness, he demanded that Democratic leaders in the House and Senate be investigated for their “ties” to Russia and then accused Obama of putting a “tapp” on his phone. In a pattern we’ve seen again and again, a brief period of self-control was followed by a chaotic outburst, as if he’d been depleted by the pressure of maintaining executive function for a whole evening.
This hasn’t stopped commentators from treating every remotely dignified Trump speech as a turning point. After he announced that the United States had fired missiles at Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack, an admiring Fareed Zakaria said, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.” When Trump announced the surge in Afghanistan, The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker tweeted, “Tonight is a new President Trump: acknowledging a flip-flop and talking about gravity of office, history and substance.”
By now, everyone should know there’s no new Trump. Advance reports suggest that Trump’s State of the Union will strike the sort of moderate tone that leads some people to pretend he’s something other than an addled demagogue.
“Amid Turmoil, Trump Seeking a Reset With State of the Union,” said an Associated Press headline. Axios reports that Trump’s aides “say to expect a more bipartisan and collaborative tone.” He is apparently planning to talk up the economy and call for action on infrastructure and the opioid crisis as well as an immigration deal, areas Democrats deeply care about.
But no one should assume his words mean anything. Trump has been talking about the opioid crisis since the 2016 campaign, and so far, he’s done next to nothing about it. Last week, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who had been appointed to Trump’s opioid commission, told CNN that it was a “charade” and a “scam.”
Trump’s infrastructure record is awful as well. Aaron Klein of the Brookings Institution wrote that provisions in the newly passed tax law will significantly lower infrastructure investments: “The impact may be large and immediate enough to swamp the short-term impact of any infrastructure package Congress can put together in the immediate future.”
On Monday, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the State of the Union will “obviously be must-watch TV.” Because Trump treats the presidency as the ultimate reality program, it’s tempting to judge him in TV terms, evaluating his skill in seeming presidential rather than in actually governing. This is a mistake. The 2017 address to Congress that won Trump such high marks turned out to be full of lies and distortions. That should have mattered more than his ability to pull off a decent show.