President Donald Trump’s much-ballyhooed address to a joint session of Congress wasn’t awful, at least by his usual standards. There was none of the “that I can tell you” and “believe me” and “OK?” or other tics that usually pepper his speeches, the characteristic boastful hyperbole was toned down a more typical political level, his sentences were parseable and occasionally almost oratorical, and he didn’t give the late night comics anything obvious to ridicule.
That was sufficient that even the media Trump has identified as enemies of the American people were offering begrudging praise, and although his most ardent supporters might have found it a bit boring and been disappointed that there it offered nothing to chant they probably liked it as well. Still, by the standard of what was needed it wasn’t a very good speech. Once people start to recover from the shock of a presidential-sounding Trump, pretty much everyone will find something in it to grouse about.
Trump shrewdly disarmed his most hysterical critics by opening with a condemnatory few words about a recent shooting in Olathe, Kansas, of two immigrants from India by a man who shouted “Get out of my country” as he opened fire, as well a recent uptick in anti-semitic incidents and other crimes apparently motivated by racial or ethnic animus, but it won’t stop complaints that his previous nativist rhetoric has contributed to the problems. His critics will also note that later spoke at greater length about the crimes committed by immigrants, and had a couple of widows on hand to illustrate the point, and emphasized how big the problem was by creating a new agency in the government to deal with its victims. Although we were advocating stricter enforcement of immigration laws way back when Trump was calling Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney “cruel” for his relatively modest proposals, we’re also leery of new agencies and can’t help wondering why the country can’t better serve victims of crime no matter who perpetrated it.
Trump also made clear he was steadfast against all crime no matter who perpetrates it, and he wasn’t quite so extravagant about overstating the extent of it as he has been in the recent past, but he didn’t offer any specific solutions, He spoke of supporting “the men and women of law enforcement,” which we take to mean to that his Justice Department won’t be harassing local police departments into retreat from their more aggressive tactics, as the administration President Barack Obama did, which almost certainly has to do with that undeniable if overstated recent uptick in crime driven largely a few cities where the Obama administration was particularly tough on the cops and crimes rates have indeed been soaring, but we would have liked to have seen that argument more fully developed.
The same lack of specificity permeated the rest of the speech. Trump swore his fidelity to “free trade,” but he sounded so perfunctory about it and so impassioned when he went on at much greater length about “fair trade” we would have appreciated a clearer description of what he wants the international commerce to look like. There is still an influential number of Republicans who still hew to the party’s erstwhile free market principles in Congress, and all the Democrats there who still aren’t so far left as self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were all for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals that Obama negotiated, and we expect they’re also wanting some further clarity about the matter. Anyone employed by or invested in one of America’s many export-dependent industries, such as the agricultural and aviation sectors that make up the biggest chunk of the economy around here, are also bound to be anxious for further details. He spoke of how America’s iconic Harley-Davidson motorcycles have a 100 percent tariff slapped on them by some unnamed countries, which so far as we tell are India and the Maldives, which is indeed unfortunate for any aspiring Indian and Maldivian biker gangs, but we like to hear more about a trade war might affect the wheat and airplane markets. He’s for getting rid of Obamacare’s individual mandate that requires people without health insurance to pay for the privilege, which is fine by us and a great relief after his campaign statements to the contrary, and he’s for interstate insurance markets, as is every sentient being on the planet, but he’s for that preexisting conditions part of Obamacare and was conspicuously vague about how he’s going to make all that work.
Speaking of the Republican party’s erstwhile free market principles, Trump also took some largely unearned credit for strong-arming and bribing some recognizable brand names into keeping some of their American workers on the job, and he promised more of the same. There were no flow charts or graphs to exactly how Trump intends to personally manage a $17.4 billion economy with all of these great deals, and we couldn’t help recalling how he’d run his casinos and airline and real estate university and various other namesake ventures, but we were reassured that at least he didn’t say “believe me, OK?” He promised to do a lot of de-regulating, which warmed our principled free market Republican hearts, and even announced a policy of only allowing one new regulation for every two repealed, which struck us as rather arbitrary but nonetheless reasonable, but all that talk about intervening in every corporate re-location suggests that the one new regulation will be more far-reaching that those few forgettable lines from section two A part IV of the This Thing or the Other Thing Act of 1936 and that bit about proper wattage of lighting in federal buildings from the Affordable This or That Act of the dying days of the Obama Administration that are tossed out.
Trump read the usual Republican boilerplate about the national debt, and rightly noted how it had nearly doubled during the Obama administration, but he also proposed enough infrastructure spending to re-build the entire country, and suggested we could do it maybe twice or even three times if we don’t get it just right, and surely we’re not the only ones left hoping for a more explicit explanation of how he plans to pull that off without the debt. He’s talking big tax cuts and promising that along with all de-regulating they’ll speed up the sluggish pace of economic growth, which we our free market sensibilities regard as good bet, but we’re not such risk-takers that we wager it will be enough to rebuild an entire country of this size a couple of times over. Trump said we’d already spent that much in fighting the war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is only true if you very much want to believe Trump because that he can tell you, OK?, and he seemed to promise there’d no more such foolish spendthriftiness for at least the next four years, but he also promised to eradicate the Islamic State terror gang and radical Islamic extremism in general, so we’re still unclear how those numbers will work out.
The only other mention of foreign policy was some talk about new alliances with old enemies, which Trump likened to our post-World War II arrangements with Germany and Japan, which we took to mean that he’s going full steam ahead on selling both of them and number of other countries out to the Russian dictator that he has frequently praises. It got short mention in the speech and the immediate stories about it, but given all the allegations of Russian meddling in the election and the recent leaks about the Trump campaign’s contacts and the past officials with undeniable ties to the Russkies who have been kicked off team Trump and whatever might or might not be in those still-undisclosed tax returns, as well as all that gushing praise Trump keeps heaping on Putin, the story is likely to linger.
All those Democrats who laughed at Romney’s Cold War-era foreign policy are suddenly sounding like John Birchers, and there is still a significant number of Republicans left who hold to the party’s erstwhile stern position about the Russkies, and we expect they’re eagerly awaiting more details about the matter. The same coalition is likely to take a look at the fine print in all that infrastructure spending, too, as every last pre-Trump Republican stood firm-fast against such spendthrifty tomfoolery back when Obama was proposing it, and all those Democrats who used to think it was a great idea will hate it because it’s now Trump’s idea, and we have to admit that they’ll have an argument that the private investment part of the spending is an invitation to outright corruption, and even the Sanders wing of the Democratic party will probably oppose Trump-branded protectionism. The Democrats were mostly well-behaved during the address, but they couldn’t suppress a laugh when President Trump repeated candidate Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption, and given that Trump retains full ownership of business interests that don’t necessarily align with the national interest we expect the late night comics will provide plenty more laughs about it in the coming months and years.
For now, though, Trump will probably enjoy a few days of relatively good press. That shtick of reading parseable sentences without provoking any “Twitter” feuds worked well enough for Trump that even the enemies of the American people are glumly admitting a certain presidential tone, and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with it.
— Bud Norman