Trump’s Oval Office Speech Was Never Going to Succeed

White House addresses gain their power from the dignity and moral authority of the office—and that’s not the nature of Trump’s appeal.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump delivered a televised Oval Office address, hoping to marshal the gravitas of the presidency to get his way on a border wall.

The gambit was doomed from the start.

Insofar as prime-time addresses from the White House have power, it is rooted in the public’s belief that there is dignity in the office, that its occupant possesses moral authority, and that he or she would ask for our attention only if the matter at hand was unusually important.

But Trump is an undignified, popular-vote loser with underwater approval ratings. After decades of tawdry tabloid headlines, flagrant greed, and countless lies, he is last among us in moral authority. And he makes daily demands on our attention like no president before.

Of course, Trump has gone far behaving as no other politician would. If critics are appalled that he routinely violates taboos to speak his mind, if they took offense at his attacks on political rivals or adherents of Islam or undocumented immigrants or a federal judge of Mexican descent, many of his core voters revel in his transgressive edginess.

However, that path to power has consequences. In the Oval Office, Trump lacks the credibility of his predecessors. He is no more a dignified statesman than any other Twitter edgelord. Sitting at a desk that is a symbol of respectable statesmanship leaves Trump seeming diminished and confused, like King Joffrey realizing the Iron Throne does not itself confer stature.

Delivering prepared remarks exacerbates the problem. “He remains astonishingly bad at reading that specialized type of verbiage that politicians so often must handle: speechwriter prose,” observes Jonathan Bernstein, a Bloomberg columnist. “Trump’s voice fails to rise when the words demand it; he doesn’t insert dramatic pauses, and can’t seem to revel in the pageantry of the frills that speechwriters love to insert into the text.”

Lots of politicians read noble-sounding passages that they don’t strictly believe, but doing so is especially difficult for a man who offers little besides the conceit that he’ll at least call it how he sees it. And substantively, much of what Trump asserted is at odds with reality. God help us should an actual emergency ever occur on his watch.

Weirdly, Trump himself reportedly intuited that the speech would not help him. The New York Times writes that “privately, Mr. Trump dismissed his own new strategy as pointless. In an off-the-record lunch with television anchors hours before the address, he made clear in blunt terms that he was not inclined to give the speech or go to Texas, but was talked into it by advisers, according to two people briefed on the discussion who asked not to be identified sharing details.”

The newspaper quotes the president as saying, “It’s not going to change a damn thing, but I’m still doing it.” As ever, he wasn’t afraid to go for broke.