The first month of Donald Trump’s presidency has been marked by this repeated unending observation among media observers: “This is not normal. This is not normal. This is not normal.” So it’s possible that much of the ebullient praise for last night’s address to a joint session of Congress is borne out of it being, well, normal – normal in tone and in manner. Boring, if you will, in a safe and responsible way. One could imagine John Kasich giving much of that speech, especially the parts about family leave; one could imagine Tom Cotton giving much of that speech, especially the parts about the evils of the sequester; one could imagine Mike Pence giving much of that speech, especially the parts about America. The point is that this was in large part a generic big-spending tax-cutting cop-and-military-defending Republican speech. Which is safe, and recognizable, and, well, normal.
You only had bunches of things to hate if you believe in free trade, fiscal responsibility, entitlement reform, and balanced budgets – things the Republican Party once stood for but it turns out were never part of its animating mission. So, essentially, Paul Ryan was put through 90 minutes of on-air waterboarding for him and his Reaganesque/Jack Kemp mission for the party. But he swallowed hard, and stood, and yes, he clapped. As someone who believes in all these things from the comfort of not being a member of Congress, I didn’t have to – I just gripped hard on my copy of The Fountainhead, and wished him well.
John Podhoretz, no Trump fan he, has the description.
In the first 38 days of his presidency, Donald Trump seemed to struggle to find his footing. On his 39th, he found it unexpectedly in a strong, direct and — surprise of surprises — beautifully modulated and spectacularly delivered address before Congress.
You might think it’s grading on a curve to say such a thing about a relatively conventional State of the Union-style speech, which this speech was. But the fact that it was a relatively conventional speech was itself a sign that Trump is surrendering to the logic and traditions of the job he now has.
By all means, we should argue about the content. I was arguing with it on Twitter as he was speaking. Elected officials, activists and wonks should vociferously debate the policies he outlined on taxes, health care, the military, trade and immigration. But the point is that he put himself on record as president.
The Inaugural Address was a reward for Trump’s supporters, which is why I thought it was so effective – you saw a clear divide in polling afterward between people who thought it was a hopeful speech and people who thought it was a man in a mask saying “just walk away”. This was an olive branch speech. Again and again it offered Democrats a chance to clap, despite their refusal. He was telling them he’s still one of them, on some level – “look, we can work together on infrastructure, on health care, on family leave, on pro-union policies, on protectionism”. But they largely sat on their hands, which is fairly idiotic. Just because the guy is going to be honoring his obligations to conservatives on his cabinet and his Supreme Court choice and on f-ing ISIS to death doesn’t mean he isn’t still in his heart a big-spending update of Ike or Dick Nixon. If only he had their hatred of the Russian Commies, it’d be a lot better.
This was an exceptionally effective speech, well-delivered, normal, and with a few unexpectedly emotional notes. It puts in perspective how terrible his convention speech was, with its laundry list of policies and personal braggadocio. There have been some excellent choices for President Trump’s speechwriting office – Vince Haley and Ross Worthington have been writing for Newt Gingrich for years, and you can see the hallmarks of Gingrichian arcs of history and imagine Mars and what inventions shall we have at 250 years in this speech. These are much better than personal braggadocio – they are about us, and what we can achieve. When Trump talks of these things, he is more unifying and more ambitious than the average tempered politician. And this is the part we cannot see Pence or Kasich or Cotton giving – the part where we say that together, public and private, politician and CEO, the United States of America is fundamentally an idea that will plant its flag on the top of worlds. Only Trump is audacious enough to say that. And that is why he is there.