A new President Trump spoke to the country on Tuesday night, one who didn’t bring the Republican conference to its feet chanting “build that wall” but delivered a punchline that any American politician could have: “Let’s work together to compromise and reach a deal that will truly keep America safe.”
The new Trump is, to use his own favored insult, low-energy.
Trump’s 2019 State of the Union speech Tuesday night was a plea for unity and a series of clichéd calls to break from partisanship. For a president whose party received a thumping in the 2018 midterms, the language might almost make sense.
But the country just suffered through a month-plus-long government shutdown over Trump’s wall. In a week, funding runs out again. Trump did not renew the threat to shut down the government, nor did he declare a state of emergency and claim unilateral authority to build one without congressional authorization. Instead, he presented a vague plan that seems like something even his Democratic opponents could feasibly agree to.
Trump is notoriously unreliable, so there’s no telling what will happen five or 10 days from now, but for the moment, at least, he appears to be signaling a willingness to surrender on his signature issue.
A more charitable interpretation of Trump’s address is he is actually returning to what made him exciting. It’s easy to forget today, but back in 2015, there was something a bit thrilling about Trump’s campaign — even if you found his race-baiting and anti-immigrant demagoguery offensive and dangerous. Trump was an outsider who violated partisan taboos and threatened to shake up the system. He certainly sought to tap into that spirit Tuesday night.
“Together, we can break decades of political stalemate,” he said. “We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.”
But the reality was uninspired. Trump mumbled and sniffled his way through the conciliatory portions of the speech and only seemed to really perk up when he bragged about the economy. The rest was flat, boring, unconvincing, and, in a word, low-energy.
Trump’s mishmash of contradictions
When Trump was a candidate, the big question about him was whether he was offering an exciting new synthesis of ideas or just a mishmash of nonsense delivered by an ignorant and dishonest buffoon. After two years of watching his presidency, we can unequivocally see that the latter interpretation is correct.
Trump spoke at length about his skepticism of foreign wars, and clearly displayed a spirit of frustration with the foreign policy establishment’s enthusiasm for endless military engagements.
This is refreshing and, in my view, laudable. But when Trump turned to specific cases, things started to look different. Intense, organized interest groups in the American conservative movement are deeply committed to a hawkish approach to Iran and to waging a continued cold war in Latin America. Thus, even while Trump touted the withdrawal of troops from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he found himself in the very same speech laying the rhetorical groundwork for a war with Iran. He talked up the need to make peace with North Korea, of all countries, and then pivoted to saber-rattling denunciations of the human rights abuses of the regime in Venezuela.
There’s no higher theory at work here; it’s just opportunism.
Trump’s denunciations of the pharmaceutical industry’s abusive pricing behavior, to take another example, will doubtless play well with the audience back home. Yet one of the major “wins” Trump scored in the new trade deal he negotiated with Canada and Mexico was coercing our trade partners into making new giveaways to the pharmaceutical industry.
Speaking of trade, candidate Trump spoke of foreign imports as a terror destroying the American economy, while President Trump claims the economy is currently the strongest in history. And yet somehow even as the economy is perfect, it’s also urgently necessary to turn America’s trade upside down. His thinking on trade has never really made sense, but in the new context where he denies there’s even a problem to solve, it becomes simply bizarre. All that’s really left from the campaign is the anti-immigrant demagoguery.
The wall to nowhere
Of course, it was a Trump speech. So even as Trump mostly claimed that the state of our union is strong, he also expounded at some length on his classic theme that immigrants are coming over the border to kill you.
The solution, of course, was a wall — which is now a see-through series of slats rather than a wall, per se — that will miraculously solve all problems in American life. He buttressed this argument with a baldfaced lie about historical crime trends in El Paso, Texas. But beyond the specifics, his invocations of the existing walls near San Diego, El Paso, and other sections of the border belie the larger incoherence of his focus on this topic — the most valuable sections of wall have already been built, and any additional wall spending will be in the realm of diminishing returns.
That is a straight-up lie about El Paso, which was one of America’s safest large cities for violent crime before the fencing was erected and did not immediately see crime fall after the fence was built. Thorough debunking from https://t.co/YAFxOMPWKE: https://t.co/YrKQ3CnD6x pic.twitter.com/xAM4NycvQ6— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) February 6, 2019
That Trump likes to lie is, however, hardly news at this point. The real news is that his fantasy wall is not getting built, and, indeed, the president seems to be giving up on even trying to get it done.
An exhausted presidency
There were two truly well-done sections of the speech. One was the troll of the Democrats present around the divisive term “socialism.” The other was a series of moments on the stories of Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans.
These high points were, however, classic signs of an intellectually exhausted presidency. America does have a rich history and heritage that can be mined for moments of nobility and emotion at will. And Democrats have some internal divisions that their opponents can exploit.
But Trump’s concluding exhortations to “look at the opportunities before us” and recognize that “our most thrilling achievements are still ahead” fell fundamentally flat. Trump does not have any big ideas or grand transformative vision. His administration is essentially a three-legged stool. On the first leg, the slow but steady improvement in economic conditions that happened during Barack Obama’s final six years in office has continued through Trump’s first two. On the second leg, he’s turned over essentially every government agency to business interests who enjoy lax regulation and thus ensure he and his party remain well-funded. On the third, he has anti-immigrant demagoguery to blame for every problem under the sun.
There are no real ideas here to tackle the escalating costs of health care, higher education, housing, and child care. No interest in economic inequality, no real thought about foreign policy, and basically no real energy or sense of purpose. Trump’s key idea was that to maintain peace and prosperity, Congress needs to abdicate its oversight responsibilities and let him be as corrupt as he wants. That’s all he’s left with — a vague hope that the economy holds up and nobody catches him with his hand in the cookie jar. But the investigations are going to happen, and they’re going to be fascinating.
Trump himself, meanwhile, is just dull now.