Donald Trump’s — or perhaps more accurately, Steve Bannon’s — first address to Congress was a master class in doing what Trump does best: combining right-wing populist rhetoric with a mishmash of falsehoods, scapegoating, and brazen corporatism.
Despite widespread media reports that Trump has somehow turned over a new leaf simply by learning to read a teleprompter, the president that spoke before Congress cited just as many lies and promoted the same xenophobic, pro-corporate, war-hungry policies as the Trump we’ve seen over the last few months. What gave the speech a different flavor, however, was the administration’s signaled intent to refocus on and refine a populist image following a chaotic, politically damaging month.
That he largely seems to have succeeded should worry us.
Same Policies, New Shine
Much of the immediate response to Trump’s speech has focused on how supposedly “presidential” it was, as well as fact-checking the numerous half- and full un-truths contained therein — by now a regular and necessary, if not always effective, ritual that accompanies every one of his public addresses. And to be fair, regarding the latter, there was a lot to choose from.
He took credit, for instance, for the fact that companies like Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, and Walmart were investing and creating jobs in the United States, despite the fact that all of those companies had announced those plans long before he became president. He suggested that environmental regulations caused the loss of coal mining jobs, not the widespread shift to exploitation of natural gas, as is the reality. He claimed he would “provide massive tax relief for the middle class,” despite the fact that his tax plan raises taxes on 8 million low and middle class families while giving massive cuts to the wealthy.
Some were more shameless than others. Trump paid lip service to investing in women’s health and promoting clean air and water, despite the fact that his administration has prominently done the exact opposite. In a line that elicited audible laughter, he claimed to “have begun to drain the swamp of government corruption,” even as his administration is mired in countless conflicts of interest. The list could go on and on.
There was plenty else to dislike. Trump briefly mentioned the spate of recent anti-Semitic incidents (ones he first refused to answer a question about, then later reportedly suggested were false flags), and referred to “last week’s shooting in Kansas City” without mentioning that it was an attack on two Indian men driven by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim motives.
By contrast, he spoke at length about murders committed by undocumented immigrants, and had invited four family members of victims of such murders to attend the event, whom he singled out by name during the speech.
He at one point pointedly used the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” over-enunciating the words in a seemingly deliberate rebuke of his newly appointed National Security Advisor’s reported warning that the term is unhelpful.
And despite the fact that he had earlier attempted to duck responsibility for a botched SEAL raid in Yemen that killed at least thirty people including nine children and resulted in a SEAL’s death, he now appeared to defend it, quoting his Defense Secretary as saying it was “highly successful” and yielded “large amounts of vital intelligence.” In fact, the al-Qaeda operative targeted by the raid escaped unharmed, and several officials told NBC they were unaware of any actionable intelligence the raid produced.
Alongside this, Trump once again stressed his signature policy prescriptions: building a “great, great wall,” rounding up and deporting undocumented immigrants, giving corporations a “big, big cut” in taxes, repealing Obamacare, and gutting regulations on companies.
Other than the fact that Trump was reading a prepared speech, rather than ad-libbing a non-stop fever stream of consciousness as he would do on the campaign trail, there was little separating this iteration of Trump from earlier ones. Which makes it particularly bizarre, then, that a whole coterie of pundits — including former Obama advisors David Axelrod and Van Jones — scrambled to declare Trump properly “presidential” after the speech, specifically citing his use of the SEAL’s death in his speech (a death that was both needless and one Trump himself was responsible for). Just as strangely, a number of other pundits decided the speech had exemplified a “kinder, gentler” Trump.
“Yes, much of the content was the same,” wrote the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher, including “the full-throated exposition of an ‘America-first’ economic nationalism.” But, he explained, “the delivery was smooth and polished.”
A Populist Pivot
Perhaps Trump’s less erratic delivery and slightly more optimistic tone helped produce a generally favorably reception by the public, with 57 percent of people in a CNN/ORC poll reporting a positive reaction, and seven out of ten agreeing with his policies and priorities.
But Trump also doubled down on the faux-populism his campaign was built on. And the positive response that doubling down has received, combined with the supposedly presidential, “polished” tone he adopted during the speech, should be eye-opening for progressives and leftists who have assumed Trump would eventually collapse under the weight of his own absurdity and incompetence.
Trump mentioned infrastructure six separate times during his speech, including the term “crumbling infrastructure,” one of Bernie Sanders’ favored phrases. He promised a “new program of national rebuilding” akin to President Dwight Eisenhower’s creation of the interstate highway system, promising “new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways, gleaming across our very beautiful land.”
He complained that $6 trillion (an inflated figure) had been spent on war and nation-building in the Middle East, which “could have rebuilt our country twice” — a similar point to one made by Dennis Kucinich in 2003, when he pointed out that withdrawing from Iraq could allow the United States to redirect money to health care, education, and job creation.
Sure, Trump’s infrastructure plan is actually a corporate giveaway rather than a Roosevelt- or even Eisenhower-like public works program. But to the average viewer tuning into the speech, that didn’t matter. They simply heard rhetoric about directing much-needed spending to dilapidated roads and railways and putting Americans to work.
Keeping with his campaign, Trump also took aim at trade deals. He reminded listeners that he had withdrawn from the TPP as promised (a line that received noticeably less applause from Republicans in the audience) and outlined the negative effects NAFTA had had on US manufacturing jobs. “I believe strongly in free trade, but it also has to be fair trade,” he said, before extolling the merits of protectionism — a virtually unthinkable sentiment to hear from a Republican before a year or so ago.
He complained that “we’ve watched our middle-class shrink as we’ve exported our jobs and wealth to foreign countries.” “I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers be taken advantage of anymore,” he said. “I am going to bring back millions of jobs.”
Even Trump’s familiar anti-immigrant exhortations were more firmly rooted in economic anxieties. He claimed that overhauling the US immigration system would “save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages, and help struggling families enter the middle class.” He asserted that “enforcing our immigration laws” would “help the unemployed.” Turning to members of Congress who opposed his anti-immigrant policies, he asked: “What would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or their loved one because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?”
No doubt for some that tuned in, this America-first, anti-immigrant rhetoric was simply a reinforcement and reiteration of Trump’s racism. But there’s also no doubt countless others would have tuned in and simply heard a promise to provide unemployed and under-employed Americans with the jobs they sorely needed. No matter how disingenuous such calls are, they’re calls that people want to hear.
More Formidable Than He Seems
Trump’s speech shows why, for all his endless scandals, hypocrisy, and apparent emotional instability, underestimating him is a terrible mistake.
His ability to both play to naked bigotry and appeal to the now-fashionable-to-mock economic anxiety of ordinary Americans by opportunistically adopting the language and policies of a left-wing populism makes him a dangerous opponent for the Left — particularly at a time when his only opposition in Congress is a shambles.
That’s not to say this single speech is going to turn Trump’s fortunes around. His approval ratings have fallen to unprecedented lows since being elected thanks to revelations not just about the scale of his conflicts of interest, but the ways in which his actions as president have blatantly betrayed the populist promises he made on the campaign trail (as well as the widespread revulsion among much of the population at his misogyny, racism, and bellicose nationalism). Trump can make all the prepared speeches he wants, but they’ll mean little for his administration if he can’t back them up with action.
If Trump’s address to Congress is any indication, he’s going to continue attempting to present himself as a genuine populist while pursuing his other, more awful goals — which has always been his most successful strategy. It’s up to the Left to show how hollow this image really is.