2020 Time Capsule #1: Four Ways Trump’s Oval Office Address Failed

Tom Brenner / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Four years ago, when Donald Trump was on his rise—from apparent-joke candidate, to long-shot, to front-runner, to nominee, and on to electoral winner—I wrote in this space a series of “Trump Time Capsules.”

They started with #1, back in May, 2016, when a Paris-bound airliner plunged into the Mediterranean and Trump immediately declared that the cause must have been terrorism. “What just happened?” he shouted to a rally crowd before wreckage had even been found. “A plane got blown out of the sky. And if anybody thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you’re 100 percent wrong, folks, OK? You’re 100 percent wrong.” (Naturally, French authorities later determined that the crash arose from a mechanical problem.)

They ended with installment #152, just before the election, at the time when James Comey’s last-minute reopening of the Hillary Clinton email case was dominating headlines. In between there were installments about Paul Manafort’s fishy-looking role, the “grab ‘em by...” moment, Trump’s comments about theMexican judge,” and the shift of one-time Trump ridiculers like Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell into a Vichy Republican coalition.

Through all the posts, the idea was to record in real time what people knew about Donald Trump, about the country, and about the issues and stakes in the election, before any of us knew how the contest was going to turn out. As I wrote in introducing the very first installment four years ago:

People will wonder about America in our time. It can be engrossing to look back on dramatic, high-stakes periods in which people were not yet sure where things would lead, to see how they assessed the odds before knowing the outcome. The last few months of the 1968 presidential campaign: would it be Humphrey, Nixon, or conceivably even George Wallace? Or 1964: was there a chance that Goldwater might win? The impeachment countdown for Richard Nixon, in 1974? The Bush-Gore recount watch in 2000?

The Trump campaign this year will probably join that list. The odds are still against his becoming president, but no one can be sure what the next five-plus months will bring. Thus for time-capsule purposes, and not with the idea that this would change a single voter’s mind, I kick off what I intend as a regular feature. Its purpose is to catalogue some of the things Donald Trump says and does that no real president would do.

We are again in a not yet sure moment.

- About the upcoming election.

- About the unfolding-by-the-minute consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

- About the recent collapse of the stock markets, and the less immediately visible, but ultimately far more damaging, economic and social effects of the sudden simultaneous collapse of the travel and lodging industries, of the live-events and sports and conference and entertainment businesses, of restaurants and bars, of taxis and trains, of stores in college towns, and of the impact of all of this on the people who unload baggage from airliners or clean rooms for hotel guests or work as security guards at museums or sell jerseys at baseball games. Such roles are not as resonant as “steelworkers” or “coal miners” in political or journalistic discourse, but these jobs collectively form a very large part of the economy, they’re very hard to do over the internet or “remotely,” and they’re being eliminated at a pace not seen in at least a dozen years, and probably since the 1930s.

We don’t know.

So behind our veil of ignorance about outcomes, this is another chronicle of what we knew and heard day by day, which I’ll intend to operate, as with the original series, through the upcoming election season.

Obviously I am skipping through what would be several decades’ worth of news in normal circumstances: impeachment, the Democratic primaries, the evisceration of legal norms, and so on down a long list.

Instead, for an arbitrary starting point, let’s begin with Trump’s Oval Office address last night on the virus threat. I have experience with this rhetorical form: I wrote a number of such addresses long ago when Jimmy Carter was president, and I have studied dozens of them in the intervening years.

This latest Trump speech was uniquely incompetent and inappropriate, and it’s worth noting why, as American voters decide whether to retain him in office.

One audience that Trump himself takes seriously—the world financial system—obviously took a dim view of his statement, as markets around the world headed sharply downward practically as soon as he began to talk. Of course, their view indirectly affects everyone else.

But from a political, rhetorical, and civic perspective, what was wrong with the speech? While watching it, I was assessing the speech by two standards: What it showed about Trump and his styles of thought, and what it showed about presidents and their roles in similar moments of stress.

As for Trump himself, his public vocabulary is strikingly limited on a deployable-word-count basis: “Many people are saying,” “it’s the greatest ever,” “we have tremendous people,” “very good things are happening,” “there has never been anything like it,” and of course “sir.”

Equally striking is the consistency, or narrowness, of the messages Trump delivers. A huge proportion of his entire discourse can be boiled down to two themes:

  1. I am so great, and am doing a better job than anyone else ever has. (Biggest crowds, best economy, most loyal supporters, etc.)
  2. Other people are such cheaters—and it is outrageous what they are trying to get away with. (They’re sending rapists; they’re behind on their NATO payments; they’re ripping us off in trade; etc.)

I won’t go through the whole classification of his discourse into these two categories, but nearly everything he said last night could be boiled down to one or the other of those themes.

  • I am so great and am doing the best possible job. (“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history … Our team is the best anywhere in the world … Because of the economic policies that we have put into place over the last three years, we have the greatest economy anywhere in the world, by far.”)
  • Other people are mistreating us and are to blame. (Repeated references to the “foreign virus,” banning entry from most foreign nationals who have recently been in Europe, etc.)

Of course, every presidential address in every era has implicitly argued, I am doing a good job. Whether the challenge they’re dealing with is the Great Depression or the 9/11 attacks, Pearl Harbor or the Cuban Missile Crisis, when describing the challenge and their intended response, all presidents are effectively saying: You can feel better about this emergency, because I have a plan.

But until Trump, other presidents have applied the “show, don’t tell” policy when it comes to their own competence. They want to show they are acting the way the country would hope, so they don’t have to say it.

Trump says it himself. He quotes other people saying it about him. And he insists on hearing about his greatness from his retinue—most recently in the fawning statements made by his own vice president and secretary of health and human services, who preface their updates about the virus with North Korean-style compliments for the leader’s far-sighted action.

Five years into Trump’s presence as a foreground political figure, many listeners are inured to the two unvarying notes in his presentations: that what is good has come from him, and what is bad has come from someone else. But the prominence of these two notes in an Oval Office address was a reminder of how much we have learned to overlook. This is not how presidents have ever talked before.

And what about the speech, just as a speech? In my view it had three problems: how it was conceived; how it was written; and how it was delivered. (Plus, a bonus fourth problem I’ll get to at the end.)

How it was conceived: An Oval Office address is by definition about a big problem. (Otherwise, why is a president imposing on our time this way?) And its purpose is to answer several explicit questions: Why did this happen? How bad is it? What are we going to do about it? It also, always, must answer a deeper, broader, and more important question: Will we be OK?

Abraham Lincoln’s First and Second Inaugural Addresses can be thought of as precursors to Oval Office addresses of the broadcast era, and as the ideal form of such speeches, answering all these questions. (Why did this happen? “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war…. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend’ it.” Will we be OK? “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in..”)

Again, that’s the ideal form, but it is one that other presidents have had in mind as the model to work toward. These addresses have been about us, the American family, not about me, the leader. But Trump has only the me note in his vocal and emotional range, except for them as the enemies. He used the word us in the speech, but it was just a word. Audiences swallow a lot of guff from politicians, entertainers, and other public figures. But over time, the public can size up its most familiar performers and recognize which words ring true to them, and which they’re just reading from a script.

And this is entirely apart from the speech’s failure to address the major elephant-in-the-room questions reporters, governors, and public health officials had been asking. Starting with, Why are we so far behind with tests?

How it was written: It was written badly.

How it was delivered: Donald Trump is very effective and entertaining as an unscripted live performer, riffing and feeding off the energy of a crowd. Why does he keep going to big rallies? Partly because the crowds adore him there, and partly because this is what he’s genuinely good at. His rallies—part greatest-hits, part “you have to be there to believe it!” surprises—are great shows. That’s how he commanded so much free airtime on cable TV through 2015 and early 2016: it was the latest must-watch reality show.

But you can’t do that in every speech. And while Trump can still slip a little bit of his rally-meister style into an hour-long State of the Union address, it’s just impossible in 10 minutes behind the Resolute desk. And thus he seemed robotic, even narcotized. Presumably he had seen the text before he encountered it on the TelePrompter—in normal circumstances, a president would have done practice run-throughs many times before the cameras came on. But to judge from his delivery, he was trying to parse his way through sentences he had never seen before. If this seems harsh, compare George W. Bush’s Oval Office address after the 9/11 attacks, or Ronald Reagan’s in 1986 on defense spending and arms-limitation talks.

Bonus: Within an hour of Trump’s speech, other parts of the government were issuing “clarifications” about points he had misstated in his speech. No, not all travel from Europe was suspended. No, the European transit ban did not apply to cargo. No, Americans coming back didn’t need to be screened before reentry. And no, on other points.

Had the need for immediate fact-checking arisen, with any previous Oval Office address? Not that I am aware of. Whatever political party holds the White House and whatever policies these speeches seek to advance, such addresses usually reflect the greatest level of attention to detail that a president’s team can apply. Unfortunately, it probably did so in this case, too.

Twelve hours after Trump’s speech, Joe Biden gave an address that was “presidential,” by the standards listed above. It expressed concern for those suffering in medical, financial, or emotional ways. It laid out what was known and unknown about the challenge. Implicitly, it argued: We will be OK.

What the contrast between the speeches means, politically or in terms of public health, we don’t know at this moment. As of this installment, we know that Donald Trump faced a familiar test of presidential mettle, and badly failed.

More, and shorter, time capsules ahead.