President Trump’s State of the Union speech tonight was subdued, emotional, Trumpy in some identifiable ways (like his focus on gang violence and skills-based immigration restrictions), but also normal: a speech that in tone could have been given by a conventional politician. That doesn’t excuse or erase the ways in which Trump is not a normal president (or degrade from them, if you’re the sort of person who likes not-normal-for-Washington), but just as hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, Trump’s periodic efforts to speak in the language of normal American politics is a reminder of why normal American politics remains a thing of value worth preserving. Many Republicans, like me, who are not comfortable with Trump would have been a lot easier to convert if the Trump of tonight’s speech was the every day Trump.
For the most part, the speech was good because it was not a typical Trump speech, although it sought to put a lot of human faces on the causes Trump champions. Trump leaned heavily on stories of inspirational people in the gallery, a dolorous and saccharine tradition begun by Ronald Reagan. Used sparingly, such stories can be powerful, and many of tonight’s were, but it’s a sign of weakness that he had to rely so much on them to wring emotion and applause from the audience. But then, for a populist, Trump is particularly vulnerable to charges of being callous towards ordinary people, so maybe that was necessary. And the litany, from Steve Scalise to the “Cajun Navy” to the Border Patrol to the horrors of North Korea, reminded us of what a difficult year this has been, and what a perilous world we still live in.
Of the five things I suggested Trump do tonight, he basically hit all five, at least to some extent – maybe a bit light on healthcare besides trumpeting the death of the Obamacare individual mandate, but otherwise, he touted the concrete benefits of business tax cuts, the breaking of ISIS’ hold over territory, the benefits of bipartisan compromise on immigration, and America’s sympathy with Iranian protestors against tyranny.
It’s unlikely that tonight’s speech will turn anyone’s opinion of Trump around, but for tonight, he did what he needed to do.