President Donald Trump’s congressional address was well-received, possibly because it wasn’t burdened too much with conservative ideas or actual-world rhetoric. But the sugar-teat of elite approval can be addictive. Should he start channeling notoriously taciturn Calvin Coolidge to keep the nectar flowing?
Everyone remembers the woman who wagered she could make Coolidge say at least three words, netting a terse, “You lose,” in reply. Less famously, Coolidge also observed, “The things I don’t say never get me into trouble.” What if the president lived by that standard, instead of moonlighting as arms dealer to the opposition? It’s a tempting picture, but defensive silence would be completely wrong for Trump.
Top-volume opposition to the status quo was what brought Trump to Washington. His willingness to say anything, even in the teeth of mainstream mockery—the Left’s favorite weapon—was like a fresh breeze after decades of tightening rules about what may be said.
By those standards, Trump remains on target. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 53 percent of Americans think the media and other elites are “exaggerating” the administration’s problems. More, 47 percent, approve of Trump’s policies than endorsed the early efforts of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Also in the Journal, Karl Rove reported that 65 percent of Americans are allowing the president full, qualified, or potential support, according to a CBS/YouGov poll.
He’s Not an Orator, But He Doesn’t Need to Be
Steve Bannon overdid the praise at CPAC in February, saying of Trump on the campaign trail, “I happen to believe [Trump] was the best public speaker, in those large arenas, since William Jennings Bryan.” That’s just silly. Trump’s market space is Gilded Everyman, not Silver-Tongued Orator.
His unscripted speech is full of mispronunciations, malapropisms, wandering dependent clauses, predicates abandoned and popping up later like German verbs arriving late to the party. Sorting out Trump’s stream-of-consciousness speech has reporters shaking their heads like 18-year-olds slogging through “Finnegans Wake.”
But it provides them useful material. Consider his comments about the raid on al-Qaeda in Yemen that tragically cost the life of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens. “[T]hey came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. And they lost Ryan.” For the press, this was Trump churlishly blaming the generals. More likely it was a clumsy attempt at pathos—Tevye of “Fiddler on the Roof” shrugging elegiacally at immutable fate.
Speaking of migrants and terrorism in Europe, Trump said, “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden…they’re having problems like they never thought possible.” This surprised the Swedes, who had gone to bed thinking all was well.
It was. It turned out the president was referring to a previous evening’s news report about crime and migrants in Sweden, tangling the time sequence and separate incidents. But instead of reporting on documented problems in that country, the media focused on whether anything had happened there “last night.”
When he’s occasionally right in detail, he’s lambasted for being wrong in general. After a February rally, the New York Times complained that Trump’s statement about Chicago—“hundreds of shootings, hundreds of deaths”—painted an inaccurate picture of high crime rates when such rates overall are down. But Chicago (and the rest of the country) is experiencing a spike in killings, and some experts are beginning to worry it may well be more than a spike.
The Left Has Taught Us to Listen in Broad Strokes
Trump’s garble problems are always going to leave him vulnerable to this kind of thing. Unlike professional politicians, he hasn’t spent his whole life buffing and polishing a speaking style. So risk-averse conservatives might prefer that he stick to a written text in public, and do his real work behind the scenes.
But is that really necessary? The press is already apoplectic about Trump’s willingness to go over their heads to the nation, which means it’s working. Besides, especially in politics, glib eloquence comes off as suspicious as often as admirable. Think Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or Kevin Kline in “Dave,” both regular guys doing clumsy but virtuous works despite artful Beltway insiders.
Trump’s comments are like an impressionist painting: stand too close and it’s a muddy, disordered mess. But viewed from a certain distance, maybe squinting, it resolves into a plausible representation of reality.
Going forward, Trump will inspire plenty of “Saturday Night Live” sketches. We’ll all enjoy them, then shrug. The president speaks imperfectly, but the Left has taught us that words and meaning are malleable—pro-choice instead of pro-abortion, gender identity instead of gender choice, what the definition of “is” is—so we’re already trained to listen in broad strokes.
Meanwhile, Washington’s political people-pleasers will continue snickering into their shirt collars, sure that the president is suffering death by a thousand sound bites. But Trump may have the last laugh. It’s hard to go far wrong drawing a clear line between yourself and the professional political class, even by accident. People sense that Silent Cal’s true heirs, paradoxically, are the mainstream elites who are talking all the time, but in substance just saying “You lose.”