President Donald Trump won plaudits for his joint address to Congress on Tuesday night, which was far more presidential—that is, less petty and vindictive—than any of his performances to date. “Trump eased up on his deeply dark rhetoric during his first address before Congress on Tuesday night,” Politico reported, “instead infusing his speech with aspirational talk of Americans’ ‘hopes and dreams’ while making bold promises about his presidency.”
It’s easy to see why many analysts responded positively to Trump’s speech, which was notably more inclusive than his polarizing rhetoric on the stump.
“Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our Nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains,” Trump said at the very beginning of the speech. “Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting of two Indian men in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”
Trump touted policies aimed at women, noting that “with
the help of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, we have formed a council with our neighbors
in Canada to help ensure that women entrepreneurs have access to the networks,
markets, and capital they need to start a business and live out their financial
dreams.” This was combined with calls for Republicans and Democrats to “work together” for an infrastructure program.
Because of such moments, the speech was praised as “unifying and normal” by National Review editor Rich Lowry, a sentiment shared by many. Yet such praise has to be tempered by the fact that Trump’s newfound normality is only relative. If any other president had given this speech, much of it would have alarmed mainstream viewers with its dark, dystopian, and divisive message.
In truth, Trump jammed together two speeches—one offering promise of a tolerant and unifying president, the other engaging in the usual fear-mongering and racial demagoguery. In the darker parts of the speech, Trump reprised the “American carnage” of his inaugural address. He again falsely portrayed America as a nation going to hell in a hand basket, where crime is soaring, everyone is out of work, and the government is more interested in a globalist agenda than its own people.
Trump’s speech started with a dire portrait of America:
For too long, we’ve watched our middle class shrink as we’ve exported our jobs and wealth to foreign countries.
We’ve financed and built one global project after another, but ignored the fates of our children in the inner cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit—and so many other places throughout our land.
We’ve defended the borders of other nations, while leaving our own borders wide open, for anyone to cross—and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate.
And we’ve spent trillions of dollars overseas, while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled.
Trump promised to redress these problems, but it’s notable that at the end of the speech he returned to the theme of how criminals, both American-born and immigrant, were destroying America. While the more positive parts of the speech were articulated with generalities about working together, the dark passages were presented as vivid narratives with clear heroes and villains.
Immigrants, whether documented or not, commit less crime than other Americans, but Trump talks about these crimes with a melodramatic bluster:
Joining us in the audience tonight are four very brave Americans whose government failed them.
Their names are Jamiel Shaw, Susan Oliver, Jenna Oliver, and Jessica Davis.
Jamiel’s 17-year-old son was viciously murdered by an illegal immigrant gang member, who had just been released from prison. Jamiel Shaw Jr. was an incredible young man, with unlimited potential who was getting ready to go to college where he would have excelled as a great quarterback. But he never got the chance. His father, who is in the audience tonight, has become a good friend of mine.
Also with us are Susan Oliver and Jessica Davis. Their husbands—Deputy Sheriff Danny Oliver and Detective Michael Davis—were slain in the line of duty in California. They were pillars of their community. These brave men were viciously gunned down by an illegal immigrant with a criminal record and two prior deportations.
To address this imagined crisis, Trump said he has “ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims” of crimes committed by immigrants—a statistically minuscule problem, as crime in America goes. And in a press release sent during the speech, the White House heralded Trump’s Blue Lives Matter agenda by noting that he directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “develop a strategy to more effectively prosecute people who engage in crimes against law enforcement officers”—also a statistically minuscule problem. In short, Trump’s meager policy solutions aren’t commensurate with his graphic portrait of a broken America.
It’s understandable why people want to believe that the Trump of “American carnage” has pivoted into a more inspirational president. But any attention to his words makes clear that an extremely disturbing, distorted vision of America still defines this presidency.