It was a very Trump address, basically a slightly more subdued version of his stump speech. The deepest theme of the speech was the legitimacy of the nation state and an argument for it as the best defender of the interests of its citizens and as a community writ large. A sub-theme was that the nation exists to protect us — Trump used a version of the word several times (“protection will lead to great prosperity and strength”; we are and will always be “protected” by our military and by God).
The speech is being portrayed as radical, which is in part a reaction to the fact that Trump didn’t make any attempt to elevate his rhetoric and to some of his incendiary verbiage (he referred, when talking about crime, to “this American carnage”). But this is to overlook the genuinely unifying notes. He called us “one nation,” and developed the point in a passage at the end, beginning with his promise that “a new national pride will heal our divisions.”
What was missing was any hint of limited-government conservatism or constitutionalism. The closest he came was in the opening when he spoke about returning power to the people. For Trump, this is a populist goal, cast as a way to undermine a callous and ineffectual establishment. It is in the overlap between this populism and a limited-government agenda that there is the space for fruitful cooperation between President Trump and the Republican Congress.
Trump left no doubt, if any existed, that he is in a different place from most of his party.
But Trump left no doubt, if any existed, that he is in a different place from most of his party. He said, for instance, that “the wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.” He is one of the few elected Republicans in America who speaks in such terms. He made it clear that he essentially considers the international sphere a zero-sum proposition; the strength and prosperity of other countries have come at the expense of our own.
He also enthusiastically talked about building infrastructure, making it sound like he is previewing not a limited effort to leverage more private capital for building projects but a truly grand spending program.
This soaring description of his infrastructure program was part of the speech’s lack of modesty. Despite the combative tone and scorching evaluation of how we got to this point, it was an incredibly optimistic address. Trump didn’t hedge his promises, he made them as big and bold as ever: “America will start winning again. America will start winning like never before.”
It’s a benchmark that few presidents would want to set for themselves. But Trump didn’t get here by being timid.