After two months in office, Donald Trump has succeeded in setting an extraordinarily low bar for himself. How else to explain the widespread praise for his “presidential” demeanor is his appearance before a joint session of Congress Tuesday night? Compared with his angry, apocalyptic Inaugural Address, Trump sounded relatively coherent, or at least not stark raving mad. But there was nothing reassuring about his speech.
He began with a cynical tribute to Black History Month and the civil rights movement, as if his entire campaign had not relied on race-baiting the nation’s first black President, garnering the enthusiastic support of white supremacists and hate groups nationwide.
Trump got props for condemning an upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks since his election—something he had previously refused to do.
“We are a nation that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms,” he declared. The prettier forms of hate and evil are another matter.
Republicans who, with Trump’s help, have been pursuing a deliberate strategy to disenfranchise black voters through voter ID laws surged to their feet to applaud Trump’s celebration of “our nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains.” (That work apparently includes the retreat by Trump’s Justice Department from civil rights litigation, including in a key voting rights case in Texas.)
Trump reiterated his talking points about inheriting “a mess” from President Obama—painting a picture of a dangerous, divided, and economically devastated nation.
Even after his recent revelation that “nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” Trump dwelt heavily, and disingenuously, on his plans to work with Congress “to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster.”
And, he asserted, “We’ve inherited a series of tragic foreign-policy disasters.”
To help fix things, Trump’s budget sets forth what he described as “one of largest increases in national defense spending in our nation’s history.”
In the creepiest moment of the entire speech, Trump lingered over the weeping widow of Navy Seal Ryan Owens—the special ops officer who died in a botched raid on Trump’s watch. Cable news pundits heaped praise on Trump for showcasing Owens’s widow.
But the way he used her as a prop is even more disturbing when you consider Trump’s tacit acknowledgment that Owens died in a poorly executed and ultimately fruitless operation. On “Fox and Friends,” the Commander-in-Chief shifted the blame onto his generals, saying “They lost Ryan.” Owens’s father, who was outraged by the sacrifice of his son in what he described as a “stupid mission” refused to shake Trump’s hand.
That rebuke apparently had no effect on the President, who milked the applause and lingered over Owens’s obviously distraught widow: “Ryan is looking down right now. You know that,” he told her, as she clenched her hands together, the cameras zooming in on her tears. “And he’s very happy, because I think he just broke a record,” Trump declared, implying that Owens would have been proud that his death created the occasion for Trump to bask in the crowd’s adoration.
In Trump’s world, not only are fallen soldiers “happy,” so are immigrants, who will benefit from his new “merit-based” immigration plan. Even as ICE crackdowns sow terror in immigrant communities nationwide, Trump announced that his new plan will help immigrant families enter the middle class “They will do it quickly and they’ll be very, very happy indeed.”
Don’t worry, be happy.
Anyone who is comforted by this kind of rhetoric is not taking too close a look at the details.
Take Trump’s pledge to bring back American jobs, including his assertion that "dying industries will come roaring back to life.” He got a standing ovation, including from some Democrats, when he declared that he would “make it much, much harder for companies to leave our country.” But that tough talk quickly devolved into promises to sweeten the pot for corporations, whom he wrongly claimed pay punitively high taxes in the United States compared with the rest of the world. Making it “hard to leave the country” turns out to mean giving a giant tax cut to corporations here: “It will be a big, big cut,” Trump said.
“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed,” Trump concluded airily. “Every problem can be solved, every hurting family can be healed . . . so why not join forces and finally get the job done?”
Why not, indeed? Who knew it would all be so easy?
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.