Trump's Speech: A Chance for Some Grace Notes
President Trump loves the word “beautiful.” He used it often during his presidential campaign, once in his inaugural address, twice the following day while visiting the CIA—and at least 18 more times in his ensuing five weeks in office. But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson could have told him, that word, by itself, is not enough. “Beauty without grace,” wrote the 19th-century philosopher-poet, “is the hook without the bait.”
Ever since he upended Hillary Clinton in one of the great upsets in U.S. political history, Donald Trump has been busy rehashing his 2016 election triumph—and doing so without much fealty to factual detail. He could have won the popular vote had he campaigned in California and New York, he told critics who carped on Clinton’s vote totals. To skeptics of that claim, Trump added that he lost because millions of illegal residents voted. He also claimed he’d won the Electoral College in a landslide, which isn’t true.
On Inauguration Day and afterward, those hoping that the presidency would instantly modulate Trump’s tone were disappointed. He picked a fight over comparing crowd sizes with President Obama’s inauguration and delivered an inaugural speech remarkably free of charity. He mentioned Barack and Michelle Obama in passing, saying they had been “magnificent,” by which he meant they had treated him and Melania Trump well. The rest of the nation’s political leaders on the dais that day—including George W. Bush and his wife, Laura; Bill and Hillary Clinton; Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter; Bob Dole; Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi; Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell—all schmucks, in Trump’s telling, if not traitors.
“For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” Trump said of these people—and an entire political class he dismissed as selfish and corrupt.
“Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth,” he added. “Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”
The speech wasn’t as poorly received in Trump Country as it was among elites, but there was something discordant about it. Trump had won, after all, so why repeat his stock stump speech? The campaign was over, it was time to govern. But Trump wasn’t quite ready to go there yet. Is he today, 38 days into his presidency, when he delivers a prime-time address to a joint session of Congress?
“In his speech, the president will lay out an optimistic vision for the country, crossing traditional lines of party, race, socioeconomic status,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Monday. “The theme will be the renewal of the American spirit. He will invite Americans of all backgrounds to come together in the service of a stronger and brighter future for our nation.”
Well, that would be nice, but it would be a departure for him. As Trump was speaking January 20 on the National Mall, I found myself ad-libbing grace notes into his speech. About the 43rd U.S. president, whom Trump didn’t acknowledge, I found myself wanting to hear something like this: “George W. Bush is here, along with his lovely and classy wife, Laura. I ran against his brother last year and criticized some of President Bush’s own policies. But he came to Washington today—even though his father is in the hospital. So let’s say a prayer for George H.W. Bush, the 41st president and a war hero, and remember a family that devoted itself to public service for four generations.”
My imagination was off and running. Trump could have noted that Bob Dole and John McCain were present—war heroes from different wars—senators who ran for president and didn’t make it, but never gave up on America or on politics. He could have pointed to the Clintons and noted that courage comes in many forms and that for them to attend his swearing-in was a poignant reminder that the peaceful transition of power is what Americans do best. He could have acknowledged that U.S. politics is in a hyper-partisan era, and that the 2016 election only made things worse. “Just listen,” he could have said, while stopping his speech for a moment. The sounds of demonstrators in the crowd and nearby would have been heard, and Donald J. Trump could have said something like, “Those are protesters—those are the sounds of freedom.”
He could have said that the following day the same mall would be full of marchers unhappy with his election, but that as long as everything was peaceful this is a good thing, because we want Americans engaged in self-government. That would have been a nice segue to turn to Schumer and Pelosi: “You’ll find that I often disagree with you, but you’ll also find that I never will refuse to negotiate with you. That’s what I know how do to.”
But Trump was going for something else that afternoon. It was not a speech designed to unite Americans—and it didn’t. Those disheartened by Trump’s election were even more disheartened by his swearing-in ceremony. “Trump’s Inaugural Address was remarkable for its caustic bitterness, it’s metallic taste,” wrote Amy Davidson in The New Yorker. “He portrayed the United States as a forsaken nation—a landscape of ‘American carnage’—and himself as its sole redeemer.”
On the other hand, those who cheered his victory liked what they heard. In an Oval Office visit, Douglas J. McCarron, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, praised Trump’s speech and thanked the president for its focus on idle U.S. factories. “It hit home,” McCarron said, “for the people who have been hurting.”
Trump is hardly the first politician who finds it more comforting to speak to his political base. But tonight’s speech—not officially called a State of the Union address, but that’s what it is—affords him the chance to try and broaden his audience. It’s delivered in the U.S. Capitol for a reason; members of Congress aren’t just a backdrop, they are the men and women who will vote on the president’s plans to reform Obamacare, change the tax code, spend money on highways and roads, rewrite trade deals he finds wanting, and keep the nation safe without completely turning off the spigot of immigration that has always been this country’s wellspring.
Like it or not, the members of Congress who spring to their feet theatrically in partisan unity for some lines while sitting on their hands for others—that’s his audience now. He won the 2016 campaign, but 2017 is a time for governing. Here, too, President Trump can heed the wisdom of Emerson.
“The less government we have the better,” he wrote in 1844. Trump and his political party share that sentiment, though they’d do well to keep in mind another admonition Emerson issued the same year. “Government exists to defend the weak and the poor and the injured party,” he wrote. “The strong can better take care of themselves.”