The bad news for Democrats in President Trump's first speech to a joint session of Congress is that he exceeded expectations. A Washington Post headline called the speech “surprisingly presidential.” it's likely to solidify Trump’s hold on his base, and will probably gain him some additional ground.
Expectations weren’t very high, especially after the apocalyptic tone of his inaugural address. The fact that he didn’t announce the End of Days and call down hellfire on four-fifths of the globe probably caused sighs of relief all over the country.
Still, Trump’s detractors forget that he has a gift for aspirational rhetoric that plays well among many Americans. It’s a gift many Democrats seem to have lost.
A Nation of Miracles
Trump was clearly chastened by recent criticism over his seeming indifference to racism. He began by noting Black History Month, a wave of anti-Semitic threats and vandalism, and the shooting of two Indian-American men in Kansas City.
Trump’s remarks were uplifting. We know, because he told us so.
“I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength,” he said, “and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart.” He spoke of “American greatness,” “a new national pride,” “a new surge of optimism,” and “the renewal of the American spirit.”
“Our children will grow up in a nation of miracles,” Trump said as he promised jobs, medical breakthroughs, and the rebuilding of America’s infrastructure.
The speech hewed to themes laid out by Trump political advisor Stephen Bannon at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “The center core of what we believe,” Bannon said, “(is) that we’re a nation with an economy… a culture and a reason for being.”
That belief is as exclusionary as it is visionary. Trump’s comments about economic greatness were matched, almost word for word, by fearmongering about immigrants. When it comes to that “nation of miracles,” it seems that only native-born Americans need apply.
The Fine Print
The president seemed to promise a major infrastructure plan in his speech, but it’s important to read the fine print. Trump said:
“I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States - financed through both public and private capital - creating millions of new jobs.”
That connecting phrase, “financed through public and private capital,” is telling. It sounds like a plan to sell off some the resources Americans hold in common - from bridges and dams to the federal highway system - coupled with massive corporate tax breaks and a plethora of financial deals that will funnel billions in public funds to Wall Street’s already-overflowing coffers.
You didn’t think Goldman Sachs was staffing his administration without getting something out of the deal, did you?
Falling in Line
Trump's speech made clear he has brought most recalcitrant Republicans firmly to heel. "I am sickened by what I heard today," House Speaker Paul Ryan said last October about Trump’s videotaped sexual remarks. "Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.”
“I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States,” Ryan said as he introduced the president to the gathered lawmakers. Ryan, Vice President Mike Pence, and other GOP leaders stood and applauded over and over as Trump lied about crime, terrorism, or immigration.
Weren’t they supposed to be the decent ones?
But the Republicans in Congress have tamed Trump, too. Tuesday's speech largely toed the Republican party line.
Take infrastructure. On the campaign trail, Trump promised major government investment. On Tuesday, he promised a financial boon for corporations and bankers.
He promised no American would go without healthcare. But the ideas Trump floated on Tuesday could have been written by the insurance executives he hosted on Monday - and probably were. There, too, Trump’s political independence has been replaced by Republican orthodoxy. There, too, Trump’s political independence has been replaced by Republican orthodoxy. He used stale GOP rhetoric when he promised “access” to insurance without mentioning affordability. Americans get no benefit from "access" to coverage they can't afford.
He has promised not to cut Social Security or Medicare, as Congressional Republicans are determined to do. But he pointedly refused to repeat that promise on Tuesday night.
Republicans applauded lustily for most of Trump’s speech. But the applause seemed to grow tepid on both sides of the aisle when Trump mentioned having killed the TPP trade agreement. The TPP, like NAFTA and other such pacts, was a bad deal for American workers. Nevertheless, a “bipartisan” consensus of Washington insiders - a group that is heavily funded by corporate contributions - has supported those agreements for decades.
But it is Trump's optimism in the speech, not the specifics, that many people will remember. And with Trump’s approval rating at historic lows, he has no place to go but up.
That’s why it’s so frustrating to see so many Democrats continue to flounder in the face of a political phenomenon they don’t seem to understand. Americans in the Republican base feel hopeless, so they vote for politicians like Trump. Americans in the Democratic base feel hopeless, too, so many of them don’t vote at all.
Trump offered a bold-sounding vision of trillion-dollar spending and major policy reform. But the policy portion of former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear’s Democratic response began with Beshear boasting that he had been “fiscally responsible… balanced our budget and turned deficits into surpluses without raising taxes.”
Too many Democrats remain obsessed with irrelevant political processes and outdated fiscal notions, even as their nemesis weaves a vision of a better life for millions. These self-appointed arbiters of expectation behave as if idealism itself was irresponsible. They seem to pride themselves on the smallness of their dreams.
Beshear led off by explaining that while he is a Democrat, he is also “a proud Republican and Democrat and mostly American.” That may have just been a gaffe, but it reflects a long-standing Democratic reluctance to associate themselves with their own party.
For what it’s worth, Beshear improved considerably after that.
Restarting the Engine
If Trump scored points with his proposal for a “deregulation task force,” was he also scoring a subliminal association with his “deportation force”? That’s partly because Democrats have failed to make the case for government’s vital role in keeping Americans safe and secure.
If his childcare plan sounded generous when it’s actually a giveaway to the rich, that’s partly because Dems haven’t agreed on one of their own.
And if his underhanded corporate giveaway on infrastructure raised some people’s hopes, that’s partly because so many Democrats haven’t dared to think big for a long time.
Trump claimed that tax breaks for corporations would “restart the engine of the American economy.” But workers, not corporations, drive the economy. This country needs a political party that will make that case, boldly and directly.
Democrats who were hoping Trump would inflict a knockout punch on himself Tuesday night undoubtedly walked away disappointed. It looks like they’re going to have to learn to fight for themselves.
This post has been updated.