Tuesday night proved once again the biggest impediment to Trumpism is none other than Donald Trump.
The proof was in the negative: The president’s first address to a joint session of Congress was most striking for its departure from so much of his usual rhetoric, and consequently the very different way in which it was received. The substance was pretty much the same as what we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Trump: Build the wall, rebuild our infrastructure, enforce our immigration laws, enforce law and order domestically, cut taxes, make trade more “fair,” destroy ISIS but otherwise take a step back from the world stage, put people back to work.
What was different was the style. There were no cheap shots at opponents, no shots at the media. There was very little bragging and self-aggrandizement, replaced by calls for unity. The speech was most reminiscent of his brief remarks after the election was called in the wee hours of Nov. 9. When he does this, he catches people off-guard — to his benefit. (If you had Trump saying the words “Black History Month” before “Make America Great Again,” please email me your Powerball picks.)
This is not to say everyone — on the left or the right — will have agreed with Trump. There was orthodoxy as well as heresy for conservatives in particular. But his delivery was far more “presidential,” as most people understand the term, than a lot of what we’ve seen from him. It was the kind of speech that can win him allies rather than enemies.
Some people seem to think the paeans to being “presidential” are a distraction, or even a ruse to get Trump to stop being Trump. I mean this sincerely, as someone who doesn’t even want Trump to get his way on every issue: The best way for Trump to fulfill his agenda would be to sound a bit more like a conventional politician. Not in substance, but in style.
The tweeting, the barbs toward the press, the rough-hewn rhetoric — all this puts the president and his administration in an adversarial position rather than one that can focus on building coalitions to accomplish his agenda.
Trump at his best, and Tuesday night was a pretty good example of that, wrong-foots enough people to keep them from uniting against him. Trump at his worst gives people an excuse to oppose him rather than grudgingly going along with him.
There is reason to believe Trump is finally settling into the job. The past week or so has been much calmer and more normal than the first few weeks of his presidency. The key for him will be maintaining that.
Again, don’t confuse calm and normalcy for agreement. News flash: President Obama pushed a lot of policies that a lot of people found extremely disagreeable. But he was able to keep moving forward because he pursued his sometimes-radical goals in a very conventional manner. Trump at this point need not worry about losing his most ardent supporters by changing his tone. He very much has to worry about not having enough support to accomplish his agenda if he doesn’t change his tone. Tuesday night’s speech was a step in the right direction.
One thing I don’t expect to change about Trump: He is always going to be the kind of executive who outlines aspirations in broad terms, leaves it to others to fill in the details, and then goes about the business of selling whatever they produce as exactly what he’d outlined at the beginning. There were precious few specifics in his speech, but there was much reiteration of what he wants in broad terms: Build the wall, rebuild our infrastructure, enforce our immigration laws, enforce law and order domestically, cut taxes, make trade more “fair,” destroy ISIS but otherwise take a step back from the world stage, put people back to work.
But his ability to sell those results will depend in large part on whether people are willing to keep listening to him. He’s shown he can go about his business in two very different ways. The way he chose with Tuesday night’s speech is the one that’s most likely to bring him success.