Trump’s “presidential tone” is meaningless

Judge him by how he actually governs

March 02, 2017
United States President Donald J. Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of the US Congress in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, February 28, 2017 ©Kleponis Chris/CNP/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images
United States President Donald J. Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of the US Congress in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, February 28, 2017 ©Kleponis Chris/CNP/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

After five weeks of confusion and lies, President Donald Trump stood before Congress and the American people on Tuesday night and delivered a sensible speech. It is a measure of just how low the nation has sunk, and just how dangerous the Trump presidency stands to be, that commentators are cheering. They are thrilled that Trump managed to behave normally.

The hope, you see, is that maybe he can do it again—and again and again. Maybe he has decided that being a dark, bellicose, self-obsessed, enemy-baiting demagogue is no longer a winning strategy, and that it is time to behave more presidentially, just like every one of his 44 predecessors has done. On rational grounds, such a decision would make sense. American government is filled with checks and balances as well as alternative power centers, and if he expects to get anything at all accomplished he will need to back off his extreme rhetoric, engage in compromise, and broaden his appeal.

If such a normalising process is underway, the nation’s politics will be improved. Yet a strategic pivot is just a half-measure, because it can’t change who Trump is as a human being. In many unfortunate ways, the true Trump will continue to shine through, and his presidency—along with the rest of American government—can’t help but suffer as a result.

It’s already happening. The Trump White House is a mess. He has chosen to surround himself with amateur political advisors—mainly loyalists from his campaign—who are ignorant about government and policy, ideologically extreme, and disconnected from truth and science.  Who does that sound like? They are entirely ill-equipped to run a government, they desperately need help—and they aren’t getting it. Among other things, Trump has failed to make appointments to hundreds of key positions in the federal bureaucracy, creating a black hole where leadership and expertise are sorely needed. The ship of state drifts.

In an attempt to demonstrate immediate, bold leadership, Trump generated a flurry of high-profile executive orders within his first weeks in office. Most were all show and no substance, accomplishing virtually nothing. Of the others, the most consequential was his now-infamous order restricting refugees worldwide and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations—which was sloppily designed, not vetted by appropriate government agencies, and quickly blocked by the courts. By any standard, Trump’s first confrontation with separation of powers was an embarrassment.

Even if done right, executive orders can only take Trump so far. To achieve his policy goals, he needs to work with Congress to win major new legislation. And that is what Tuesday’s speech was mainly about, encouraging support for his agenda. In general terms, that agenda is familiar to everyone: repeal and replace Obamacare, restrict trade and immigration, build the wall, reform taxes, reduce regulations, fix our crumbling infrastructure. The problem is that, now that he is president, the details and the follow-through matter. Thus far, however, Trump’s administration has yet to present Congress with any legislative proposals. Here too, the ship of state drifts.

When he does finally manage to pursue a legislative agenda with Congress, moreover, Trump is in for a rude awakening. The Democrats are steadfastly opposed to nearly every aspect of his policy agenda. Republicans—concerned about their own constituencies and reelection—are divided over trade, Obamacare, and immigration. Due to the filibuster, supermajorities will be required on most policy matters. Congress won’t be a cakewalk for Trump. More likely, it will be a minefield—one that his White House has no clue how to navigate.

We need to remind ourselves that a speech is just a speech. Reading from a teleprompter, Trump made it from beginning to end without drifting off into petty insults, tirades against the media, or lies about three million illegal immigrants voting for Clinton. For once, he actually came across as presidential. We’ll see how long the rhetorical pivot lasts. But whether it does or not, the important thing is how he actually governs. So far, there is no evidence that he is up to the job.