Last night, Donald Trump gave a truly good, presidential address. No, I’m not chiefly talking about its content; there was much in there for conservatives to dislike, and it remains to be seen which of his many promises are kept. I’m talking about the moral valence of the speech, with its expressed aspirations to restore prosperity and defend civil rights, and its meaningful call-outs to Americans in the gallery.
If you rewind the first 40 days of the Trump presidency, it’s been a study in extremes. Every good decision seems to be answered by a bizarre tweet, a strange falsehood, or an incoherent press conference. But if there’s one key takeaway for a president learning on the job, it’s this: Virtue is valuable.
Consider his triumphs thus far, the decisions that have pleased not just his most loyal fans but also vast sections of those who are sympathetic-but-skeptical or persuadable-but-worried. In choosing Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, and Generals James Mattis, John Kelly, and H. R. McMaster to run the key elements of the American national-security apparatus, he prioritized character above all else. These men are dignified. They have integrity. They have all shown moral courage. And the generals have demonstrated physical courage, as well.
Not coincidentally, these choices made people beyond Trump’s base cheer.
Contrast those choices with his early failures. Sure, Sean Hannity likely sees nothing wrong with the rollout of his refugee executive order, and those in the front car of the Trump train have cheered the frontal attacks on the press, including the angry tweets. But beyond the base, concern turns into worry, and absent his better decisions, worry would soon move into outright alarm.
Most of Trump’s early failures have shared a common characteristic, too: They arose from his instinct to “fight” exactly as he did on the campaign trail. Trump won the presidency fighting. He pledged to keep fighting in his inaugural address. And he started fighting the instant he stepped into the White House.
He “fought” when he implemented his otherwise reasonable executive order, launching an immediate crackdown for no apparent reason, triggering chaos at airports, causing unnecessarily cruel detentions, and leading to a garbled, farcical court battle.
He “fights” virtually every time he addresses the press, answering its own excesses and biases with schoolyard taunts and insults.
A more dignified version of Trump’s conservative-tinged populism would be a welcome change from Obama’s overreaching progressivism.
He “fights” when he refuses to acknowledge even meaningless truths, like the fact that Barack Obama’s first inaugural crowd was bigger than his. He won’t give an inch, even when the facts are against him.
There is a time to fight, but there is also a time to inspire, and to demonstrate dignity and integrity. Whatever else one thinks of him, Trump is shrewd; does he not have eyes to see that all but his most partisan opponents want him to be the man who nominated James Mattis and paid tribute to Carryn Owens? Does he not know that the man who spoke last night is capable of reaching beyond even the base that put him in the White House? There are some who will never be pleased with Trump and will fight him at every turn (even when he proposes policies they once advocated). But there are also millions who could support him not just when the alternative is Hillary Clinton but also in the crucial time between elections when presidents do the substantive work of governing.
In fact, he needs their support now. Unpopular presidents always struggle to pass their agendas, and while I don’t quite believe there’s a consistently conservative version of Trump underneath the bluster, a more dignified version of his conservative-tinged populism would be a welcome change from Obama’s overreaching progressivism.
It’s conventional wisdom that Trump is who he is, and he won’t change. I have argued as much many times in the past. And it seems likely that yesterday’s speech will be ruined by tomorrow’s tweet, so actually predicting any real transformation is a fool’s errand. But we know he can be better. We saw it last night. We’ve seen flashes of it before. We can and should see it again. Donald Trump can do well by being good, and we should all hope that the reaction to last night’s speech makes him realize it.