Throughout the 2016 presidential race, we saw a repeated pattern. Whenever Donald Trump's erratic behavior and self-created controversies began to look like a serious threat to his campaign, his aides would schedule a prepared speech before a sober audience. Trump would dutifully read what had been written for him, usually looking bored, but sounding calm and tempered compared to his usual self. Journalists and pundits would then wonder if this was a new Trump, more presidential and reasonable than the one we had seen all along. Then within 24 hours, the old Trump would come roaring back, with one of his brutish rallies and some petty, vindictive tweets punching down at someone who has criticized him.
The president's speech on Tuesday night before a joint session of Congress wasn't quite as insincere as those earlier ones, and it was far better written — even if it had the usual load of misleading statements and outright baloney. But watching it, you could feel the tension within Trump's administration, between the desire to let Trump be Trump, and the urge to reach for rhetoric that might make it seem as though, if only for a moment, Trump actually wanted to be a president for all Americans.
It started right from the beginning, with a paragraph that sounded like it was pasted on top at the last minute:
Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our nation's path toward civil rights and the work that still remains. Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.
Allow me a moment on this point. President Trump recently had to get browbeaten into offering a half-hearted condemnation of the rise in anti-Semitic incidents. Then a few days later, he told state attorneys general at the White House that the attacks might be false-flag shams meant to make somebody look bad. Which, to be clear, means he thinks Jews might be staging anti-Semitic attacks in order to unfairly discredit neo-Nazis.
But if Trump had the expansiveness of mind to ask a reflective question beyond "Is somebody criticizing me?", he might have recognized what an opportunity he was being presented with. After a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis and another in Philadelphia were vandalized, the most extraordinary reaction came from local Muslims, who rallied around their Jewish neighbors to raise money and repair the damage.
Any speechwriter worth his salt would have said, "We have to work this in" — and not just with a perfunctory sentence. Trump could have told the story, then said, "This is what America is really about — resilience, community, generosity, people coming together no matter their differences of faith or experience to help each other in times of need. It's a reminder of the goodness you can find in every corner of this great land." You know Barack Obama would have said that. George W. Bush would have, too. Really any president you could think of — except this one.
Nevertheless, sprinkled throughout Trump's speech were nods at unity. "We must build bridges of cooperation and trust — not drive the wedge of disunity and division," he said. And near the speech's end: "We are one people, with one destiny. We all bleed the same blood. We all salute the same flag. And we are all made by the same God." And he asked for everyone to join hands in service of the goal of repealing the Affordable Care Act: "On this and so many other things, Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite for the good of our country, and for the good of the American people."
Yet alongside those approving words about common purpose and identity were the usual Trumpian notes of division, fear, and dismissal of those who don't already support him. It was almost as if two different speeches had been merged together.
Trump talked about the election as if only his voters went to the polls, tossing in an awkward mixed metaphor: "Finally, the chorus became an earthquake — and the people turned out by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple, but crucial demand, that America must put its own citizens first." The majority of voters who chose someone else probably responded, "Wait — what?" He described a fictitious crime wave, and pledged to "dismantle the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation." And he touted his new Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement office, which he established for the purpose of tallying and publicizing crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
Think for a moment about what a vile notion that is. Imagine if it was the Victims of Black Crime Engagement or the Victims of Jewish Crime Engagement, and you realize that its only purpose is to spread hatred and fear.
That's the real Trump administration in action, and it's the kind of place Trump's heart lies. He may have managed to act almost presidential for an hour, but there can be few Americans left who think that Trump really wants to bring us all together. And just wait — within a matter of hours he'll be back on Twitter, and back to his true self.