The impossible has happened: President Trump has given a speech that actually sounded presidential.
Tuesday night’s speech to a joint session of Congress could not have been more radically different from Trump’s campaign rallies and press conferences. Gone were the rambling diatribes against “loser” opponents, the self-aggrandising tangents that defy logic and fact, and the sound-bite asides about “bad people” and “fake news. And he didn’t mention Hillary Clinton once. Instead, Trump stuck to the script – both the literal words on the teleprompter, and the more figurative script of unity and hope that traditionally defines presidential speeches.
Here are some key quotes that you might not believe came out of the mouth of the Twitter-happy president:
“We must build bridges of cooperation and trust – not drive the wedge of disunity and division.”
“If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”
“True love for our people requires us to find common ground, to advance the common good, and to cooperate on behalf of every American child who deserves a brighter future.”
“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing, and hope. Our citizens deserve this, and so much more – so why not join forces to finally get it done? On this and so many other things, Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite for the good of our country, and for the good of the American people.”
But if the language, demeanour and delivery of the speech were a marked change from what we have come to expect of the Trump, the messages were not. Rising crime, uncontrolled immigration, terrorism, bad trade deals and the sorry state of the US labour market were all major themes, as was the pressing need to “save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster”.
The speech is being heralded as a reboot of a stumbling administration, but there was no apologising for past errors, nor any sense that this signified a change of direction. On the contrary, every scandal, setback and criticism Trump has faced since taking office was referenced (if obliquely), and excused. Trump justified his position on the controversial ban on travellers from Muslim countries, including refugees, by arguing: “It is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur.” On the mass deportations and Mexican wall, he said: “We must restore integrity and the rule of law to our borders. For that reason, we will soon begin the construction of a great wall along our southern border.” This is not a president who has in any way changed his mind, as evidence by the protectionist rhetoric against trade deals: “I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers be taken advantage of anymore.” And while Trump did not name Russia specifically, he did seem to offer a defence for reports about his team’s unethical ties to Russian officials by saying: “America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align.”
So, the 45th president’s first speech to Congress marked a shift in tone, but not in course. It perhaps says something about how low the global media’s expectations of Trump have become that the night has been hailed as a triumph, simply because he stuck to the script and managed not to directly attack anyone. The ability to give a unifying speech and pay lip service to cooperation and bi-partisanship is not a high bar for the leader of the free world, and does not undo the damage Trump has done with his frequent outbursts and unchecked aggression against anyone who dares oppose him.
Let’s see how the next press conference goes.
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