Last night, about halfway through Trump’s speech to Congress, a friend on Facebook commented that all Trump was doing was reading from his script. I replied that sadly, since it’s so rare for Trump to even manage that, I guaranteed the pundits would all applaud him for it in the post-speech analysis. And it didn’t take any great insight or smarts on my part to predict that. All it took was having watched the 2016 presidential campaign.
We saw this over and over again during the campaign: reporters & pundits were so eager to be able to report on the Trump “pivot”, the moment he finally turned from the out-of- control bratty child into a mature, serious presidential candidate, that they claimed he was pivoting any time they saw the slightest indicator. If Trump managed to read a decently prepared speech off of a teleprompter without making any crazy ad-libs, the entire press corps had its story for the day: “Trump pivots!” If he went 3 or 4 days without attacking anyone or having a meltdown on Twitter, similar story: “Trump’s presidential performance!” And of course, every single time, within days, or even hours, Trump was right back to his old reliable insult-lobbing, Twitter-ranting self.
And this wasn’t only about Trump’s demeanor. This same routine happened with Trump’s policies as well. Numerous times throughout the campaign Trump would make it sound like he was softening one of his more extreme policies, and reporters would rush out with the headlines about the Trump “pivot” only to find out, usually within the same day that he wasn’t changing the policy at all. He’d simply found some new misleading or confusing way to talk about.
The best example of this was that week back in August when Trump’s immigration policy seemed to change back and forth 4 or 5 times, as he talked about “a softening,” but then he ended the week right back where he’d always been. From the start of that saga, it was clear to anyone who’d been paying attention to Trump and the way he spoke throughout the campaign, that he was hedging, that there was no substantive change behind “the softening.” But still, he garnered zillions of credulous headlines for each of the various positions he took that week, not an ounce of skepticism in them until after at least the third or fourth flip he took. And of course the roller coaster headlines gave his fervently anti-immigrant fans cause to cheer him anew when it became clear to them what he was doing.
And the point here isn’t to complain about bias or “lying media” or any of that. I think this is simply a blind spot the media has, because they’re so desperate to be able to report a new storyline. It is a certain sort bias in a way, but not a bias toward or against any candidate or elected official. It’s a bias toward the feel-good redemption story, toward wanting to believe that this mess of a candidate-now-President can really come through for the American people after all.
So anyway, sure enough, the pundits went wild for Trump’s speech to Congress last night, singing his praises for its softer tone, and particularly impressed with how “Presidential” he was. Even some liberal commentators like Van Jones were impressed, with Jones saying that “He became President of the United States in that moment, period.” (Jones was specifically referring to the moment Trump honored the wife of slain Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, a moment I talked about here. But Jones was bullish on the speech as a whole).
And it’s true, the speech was certainly less belligerent and more positive than anything Trump’s said or done since being inaugurated (particularly his doom & gloom inauguration speech). It had moments of rhetorical outreach, and it was smart of them to begin the speech with a nod to Black History Month and to acknowledge the hate crimes that have been happening in such appalling numbers around the country. Though Trump’s statement was extremely perfunctory and emotionless. And yes, it is worth something that they recognized the need for a change in tone, because up until now, it has appeared as though Trump thought he was still campaigning in the GOP primary.
But on substance, this was the same Trump. It was still all about Trump’s ultra-nationalistic worldview. It was still filled with over the top (often veering into false) statements about Muslims, immigrants, and U.S. crime rates all designed to create a vision of America as a hellscape and terrify people into backing Trump’s unpopular policies (policies that are popular with his base but no one else). Trump filled his guest list with relatives of people who’d been victims of crimes committed by “illegal” immigrants, even though immigrants commit crimes at levels no higher than native born Americans. He highlighted a disturbing new policy initiative in which he will be creating a new office specifically for people to report crimes committed by immigrants, which serves no purpose other than to ramp up fear and discrimination. And Trump insisted on using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” thrilling his right wing base, despite being warned by his new National Security Advisor that using that phrase was not helpful in the fight against ISIS.
So there was not all that much truly new and different here. It was the same policy substance, a lot of the same combative & contrary Trump, but with a slightly softer tone relative to what we’ve gotten used to. I guess we could call it “the second softening.” And unfortunately, the media fell for it all again.
And lest you think this is just my liberal bias talking, that I would never give Trump credit for anything good, don’t take it from me. Take it from the people who actually know:
(If you’re not familiar with these reporters, Robert Costa has been reporting on the Republican Party for years and has excellent sources throughout the party. Josh Green has particularly great sources inside the Trump campaign, now Trump administration.)