In the House Chamber, President Donald Trump managed to successfully read out loud for nearly an hour. He did not call anyone ugly, ask Russia to hack his political opponents or mock the disabled. Remarkably, he somehow managed to begin his address by saying that anti-Semitism and racism are actually bad things.
For these achievements, the president has been widely praised. By merely making an attempt at the basic composure expected of him, he has earned a set of headlines proclaiming a “New Trump.” However, on any issue of substance, the address represents virtually no change from the authoritarian policies of the his administration. In fact, the only discernable difference is a slight change in tone. Was our problem with proto-fascism that it just wasn’t eloquent enough?
At this moment, Trump realizes that he can clear the lowest of bars by ascending to the highest heights of insincerity. He has set expectations so incredibly low — and successfully cultivated an utter disregard for details and facts — that he can generate positive headlines with the slightest of effort. Even Trump, ego and all, is capable of understanding that his first month was a disaster. And now, we should not be shocked that a man savvy enough to win the presidency is capable of occasionally deviating from his temper tantrums.
It won’t be long at all before Trump is back to incoherent rants and angry tweets. But before then, let’s assess this moment on the merits. Despite his frequent calls for unity, Trump advocated for his standard policy agenda. He urges Democrats to join him, while giving them no reason to do so. In the few cases where potential compromise may be found, his words ring out as exceedingly phony. It is so easy for him to say these things, and so hard to imagine them actually coming to fruition.
On policy, one of Trump’s most appealing initiatives is a proposed one trillion dollar reinvestment in American infrastructure. Yet this initiative offers good reason for Democrats to be skepticism. Rather than directly spending government money to rebuild our roads and bridges, the indication is that Trump would prefer to offer tax credits to private developments. This plan would enrich corporations, while neglecting areas with less potential for profit. It is perverse to speak of rebuilding America if your policies will ignore the places that need it the most.
And then you have his request for childcare and paid family leave, ostensibly an addition pushed for by his daughter Ivanka.. Why should anyone believe that this idea has any hope of passing through this Congress? These uncertain promises and murky details can also be found in his pathetic discussion of the Affordable Care Act. After seven years of excoriating Obamacare, the Republican path forward on health care remains opaque.
Trump’s most egregious doubletalk, however, is his pledge to protect clean air and clean water. That very same day, Trump’s EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, began to rollback a major Obama administration rule to prevent water pollution. Furthermore, Pruitt has set his sights on President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a critical regulation aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, at the end of the warmest February ever recorded in Washington, D.C., President Trump couldn’t utter a single word about climate change.
The media has also seized on the fact that Trump spoke about a potential immigration compromise. Yet there is no indication that any such moderation has actually occurred. In fact, by priors standards, Donald Trump’s speech represented an unprecedented demonization of the immigrant community.
Just remember that Trump promises a new federal office to serve the victims of “immigrant crime.” Divorced from a context besides the past 18 months, this idea would have been greeted as wild demagoguery. Indeed, highlighting the specific crimes of one group of society is a textbook tactic of authoritarian regimes. Apparently, however, this doesn’t matter. Trump said it in a softer tone.
It is astonishing that anyone who has followed Donald Trump could be convinced that this address represented any real sort of change at all. We cannot be distracted by meaningless shifts in rhetoric. Instead, while we may give an ear to what Trump says, our eyes must be steadily fixed on what Trump does.
After all, a president who cloaks his discrimination is not something to celebrate. I would argue that Trump remains quite candid about many of his intentions. But when discrepancies do arise, they must be aggressively called out. And we must say what he won’t. To name just one example, President Trump was not willing to defend his recent order rescinding protections for transgender youth. That offers no solace to the student who no longer feels safe at school. Under this administration, we cannot expect that anyone in power will ever amplify the voices of the marginalized. The responsibility is now ours.
I stress that the American people must keep our standards high. Trump’s failures to date do not give him the benefit of being graded on a curve. He has done nothing to earn our trust, and yet millions still trust him. The biggest problem with Trump is hardly his immature behavior, as unbecoming as it might be. It’s his savvy ability to manipulate the public into believing that he’s defending the very American ideals that he attacks. Don’t be complacent. Don’t underestimate him. And don’t believe him.
Kevin Kowalewski is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Democratic Dialogue appears alternate Thursdays this semester.