One carefully crafted and staged “normal” address doth not an unconventional and alarming presidency change. Certainly, not the man who gave it.
A glutton for punishment, I watched Donald Trump’s entire February 16 seventy-seven-minute rambling press conference. That’s the one to which “fake news” outlets like the NY Times, CNN and Politico were invited. It was hard to listen without thinking again about president’s psyche: his thin-skinned megalomania combined with a good dose of Nixonian paranoia. It’s become common to call Trump’s performance and tweets disjointed and erratic, but I don’t buy it. I see them as smokescreen theatrics. As I’ve written before, behind the bravado and seemingly of-the-cuff outlandish is something both calculated and purposeful. He knows exactly what he is doing and why. The sheer volume is meant to distract and to overwhelm, it’s seemingly uninformed moments meant to make us underestimate him. It’s a deft act, that got him elected president. He seems intent on carrying it through his presidency. Exit stage left.
Enter stage right. Marching down the aisle of the House comes a seemingly different and more “presidential” Donald Trump. A shorter performance: 60 minutes. On the surface this non-state-of-the-union was the measured and more uniting address one would expect, the kind he failed to deliver at his far from record breaking attended inaugural on January 20. While the free-wheeling press conference came off as erratic ad lib, the February 18 talk was carefully scripted. He stayed with the text. It was staged rather than vintage Trump, another bit of premediated theater.
It’s fair for anyone who listened to these Jekyll and Hyde February performances to ask, which is the real Trump? Is it the tweeting one who appeared at the press conference or the measured one who spoke at Joint Session? Based on what we’ve witnessed during the campaign and in the first weeks of his tenure, I’d say the man who spoke on the Hill was the out-of-character exception, the outlier. It’s hard to believe that scripted persona will sustain beyond the occasional carefully calculated performance.
More important, the different tone did not mask a message that was consistent with his campaign or actions since taking office. While the words “America First” may have been absent, the intent and self-centered protective content remained. His promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare remained, accompanied by the expected Republican applause. His pledge to build a “great wall” along the US/Mexican border was repeated. His focus on violent crimes perpetrated tellingly by immigrants followed the xenophobia of his campaign as did his characterization of trade deals as one sided disasters. Disaster is his favorite word, the “mess” he inherited. Of course, here too his intent is clear. If everything was a mess, he can claim full credit for “cleaning the (so-called) swamp. He already credits himself for things that were underway or even completed before he took office. Interestingly, the one initiative that would garner enthusiastic Democratic support, a major infrastructure program, is unlikely to be enacted by the Republican controlled Congress. Ironically, unlike promises to “bring back manufacturing”, rebuilding our roads and bridges might actually result in many thousands, even millions, of new jobs.
Neither the speech nor the long press conference weeks before have changed the trajectory of the new administration. Its underlying theme remains rightist disruption. Experience does not seem a prerequisite for appointment to lead, indeed it almost seems a disqualifier. Putting in place people who have been critics of the agency’s mission they are to head is a common thread, the intention to destroy or turn back transparent. Whether or not Jeff Sessions is a racist or colluded with the Russians during the campaign, he is a man who opposes most of the advances that you and I probably cherish as progress. Betsy DeVos, who seems bent on destroying it, has no basic knowledge of, or experience with, public education. They are the norm of the Trump team. There is nothing wrong with taking a fresh look, but an uninformed look is nothing less than reckless. Reengineered speech optics don’t change the character of the leader or a cabinet that will soon be fully confirmed and in place.
I keep on waiting for some good news from this presidency, some authentic outreach to the majority of Americans who voted for Hillary, or even if you take his alternate view, the minority who didn’t vote for him. His continued and clearly systematic attack on the press leaves me more troubled that I can ever remember. All the signs of a would be authoritarian leader/regime remain in place and only he can lay those fears to rest. Thus far, I see no sign of that happening. He claims to speak for the working folk, but his wife appears in the House gallery in a reported $10,000 outfit. His preferred appointees are generals and billionaires, hardly “of the people”. He hasn’t yet outfitted White House bathrooms with his signature gold fixtures, but that may yet come. His budget, dead on arrival or not, calls for unnecessary additional defense spending and a cut in domestic programs. The environment isn’t even discussed and the march on deregulation, especially the kind that protects all of us, is on big time.
Some tiny signs of pushback can be seen on Capitol Hill, but nothing that is either meaningful or would be real grounds for hope. That doesn’t mean I’ve totally given up. People like Trump tend to over reach. But we should have no illusions. This is likely to be a full-term presidency. We’ll continue to be asking ourselves, in what kind of an America do we live? For now, and perhaps for some time to come, a changed one, and not for the better. I hope our Courts and our elected officials will ultimately stand up to protect our endangered democracy, but they will need to be pushed in that direction. That’s our job because, in the end, it’s always up to “we the people”.