Plenty of observers say that President Trump’s first speech to Congress last night was a major reset, a game changer, maybe even the moment when he “became the President of the United States.” I will stick to what I wrote last night, which is that it was essentially ‘American carnage’ with the volume turned down a couple notches. And a “Senior White House official” ( ¯_(ツ)_/¯ ) tells Trump entourage whisperer Josh Green, that it was “nationalism with an indoor voice.”
That is just right.
Trump pulled back from precisely none of his most controversial policy positions. Indeed, he doubled down on the incitement against undocumented immigrants which is the basis of the new VOICE office at DHS. His moment with the widow of the SEAL special operator who died in Yemen, while wildly lauded and powerful in his widow’s palpable grief, had a profoundly dark side which most seem to be ignoring.
When Trump didn’t have a prepared speech in front of him, this is how he spoke about the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens: “This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do. They came to see me, they explained what they wanted to do ― the generals ― who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”
It is the most basic job of the President to take responsibility for the death of Americans fighting abroad, whether it is the President’s ‘fault’ or not. Trump has firmly refused to do this and continues to claim, against most evidence, that the mission was a success.
Owens father has already become sharply critical and called on the President not to “hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation.” The wording of Trump’s moment with Carryn Owens seemed structured precisely to repurpose her grief as a heat shield to ward off any calls for an investigation or any suggestion that it wasn’t a success. Note specifically Trump’s invocation of Defense Secretary Mattis’ claim that the raid was a success before calling out to Owens’ widow.
The important thing to remember is that for the moment, little of this may matter. Think back to President Bush’s notorious “mission accomplished” speech on that aircraft carrier off the coast of California in the spring of 2003. It was a shamelessly political stunt. It drove Democrats crazy. They had arguments about the cost to the Navy for the event and whether the sailors on board should have been allowed their R&R without the presidential distraction. But this inevitably seemed like caviling and bleating on the margins as long as most of the country was either excited or simply relieved that the war had been quick and with relatively few American casualties. It was the substance, not the stunt or the bombast, that eventually made it one of the most notorious moments in Bush’s presidency.
I suspect this will be largely the same.
Taking the edge off the rhetoric, turning down the volume or speaking in an in-door voice does make a difference. There’s Trump’s policies, most of which are unpopular. Then there’s the gnashing, blood and soil, rhetoric in which he speaks of them – an angry and foreboding code which echoes the least lovely parts of his personality. This can and may well for the moment make a difference. Maybe we will see in retrospect that this was a fundamental break with the way the President has started in his presidency in its first weeks. But I doubt it. It’s the same policy, just with an “indoor voice” as this mysterious senior official puts it. It’s all the same.