On scattered occasions in bygone years, I daydreamed about how refreshing it would be if a plainspoken outsider took control of the American presidency from the long parade of career politicians with canned speeches of platitudinous proposals.
“One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all,” Andrew Sullivan wrote last month, adding that Donald Trump’s America felt “less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes.”
On Tuesday night, addressing a joint session of Congress, Donald J. Trump was uncharacteristically staid. He did not question the birthplace of any Democrats; sneer that any foreign countries are sending us their rapists; call Ted Cruz’s wife ugly; insult a Gold Star mother with an ethnic stereotype; urge the public to check out a sex tape; digress in order to brag about his electoral college victory; lie about inauguration crowds; praise a brutal dictator; needlessly insult the prime minister of a close military ally; or declare any of his fellow American citizens to be deplorable enemies of the people. Clearing that low bar was enough to make the speech the finest moment of his presidency. Watching a man read from a teleprompter and mostly sound like a typical Washington politician has never felt so calming.
I hope that this represents a pivot to the basic level of decorum and rhetorical discipline Americans long took for granted––that Trump has tired of stoking the divisiveness and polarization that is indispensable to Steve Bannon’s project. The speech certainly sounded less Breitbartian than his inaugural address, even with its factual problems and demagoguery on illegal immigrant crime. Much of its proposals will properly be subject to intense debate. As for tone, John Podhoretz is right:
He spoke quietly, fluently and in a dignified manner entirely different from the raucous talk-show-caller style that has turned American politics on its head. He even seemed to criticize it himself in his closing words: “The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us.”
Time will tell if Trump gives up picking trivial fights. (Is he still on Twitter?)
After “read my lips, no new taxes;” “I did not have sex with that woman;” “the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised;" and “warrantless surveillance of American citizens, in defiance of FISA, is unlawful and unconstitutional,” I no longer look to what presidents say to understand reality; I mistrust all of their words and scrutinize their actions instead.
That’s why, though I hope Trump has just signaled an intent to be a better president––that Tuesday was a small step for America and a giant leap for Trump’s superego––I shan’t regard him as possessing even the partial credibility of bygone presidents until he also conforms to the long-held norms that demand more of him than a skilled speechwriter. Trump owes us his tax returns. He owes us a credible explanation for the ties many of his associates have to Russia. He owes us divestment from his international corporate holdings, for he has massive business conflicts all over the world that compromise his ability to act in America’s interests.
It was proper to honor the widow of a fallen soldier, a moment that National Review’s David French described with particular eloquence. But that moment is no substitute for an honest inquiry into the mission’s wisdom and an attempt to learn from it. And while it’s nice that Trump mentioned Black History Month and denounced hate crimes, it is vital that he reverse course so that the federal government continues both its oversight of police departments that perpetrate civil rights violations and its efforts to combat the terrorist threat posed by right-wing extremists.
Tuesday night’s speech far surpassed expectations. But unifying the country, “making America great again,” and every other sweeping promise Trump has made requires far more than one evening’s rhetoric, especially when the man making big promises has a trail of ex-wives and creditors attesting to the unreliability of his word, and has left large swaths of the government unprepared to excel.
“Hopefully, Trump will surprise his detractors and behave better in the White House than he has in the 2016 campaign, his business career, and his personal life,” I wrote the night of Trump’s victory. “For the sake of the nation and the world, I hope he rises to the occasion, and that he respects the civil liberties of every American regardless of their identity. In any project that benefits the nation while safeguarding civil rights and liberal norms, I wish him success... Still, I worry that the worst sides of Trump will resurface.”
So far, Trump’s worst side has resurfaced during 38 days governing, while his best side emerged on the 39th day. Like a factory with a sign that says, “It has been one 1 day since the last accident,” that breakdown isn’t reason to brag, let alone cause for optimism. But it’s better than nothing.