Opening Night

Republicans had been dreading this. They finally have complete control of the House and Senate, and now they have their very own president – but he’s not much of a Republican. He campaigned against their party as much as any Democrat. He knocked off all their big guns, one by one, starting with Jeb Bush – and John McCain wasn’t a hero either – and the last man standing – Ted Cruz – had to swallow all of Trump’s insults – his wife was an ugly hag and his father was in cahoots with Lee Harvey Oswald. Paul Ryan bit his tongue. Trump’s call for a Muslim ban was clearly racist – but there were larger issues at play – tax reform and dismantling all the elements of the social safety net and ending the “culture of dependency” or whatever. He could live with the racism, for the greater good – but there were the endless unhinged tweets about Saturday Night Live, and the tweets citing white nationalist nonsense. There was an unhinged press conference. There was the inaugural address about how America was a hell-hole for everyone, full of imaginary statistics to prove that. There were those rants about the CIA – those Nazis – and rants about the major news organizations – the “enemy of the people” now. And there was the Putin stuff – and the comments that NATO is obsolete and the EU was a stupid idea and everyone should do what Britain did and just pull out. Putin couldn’t ask for more – and Trump goes off-script. He might say anything – and this is a partial list. Republicans had been dreading Trump’s first address to Congress, not a State of the Union address, as he just got there, but still a worry. This was Trump’s opening night, but they were the ones with opening-night jitters.

Democrats dreaded this too. Republicans have long controlled thirty-three of the fifty state governments, down to the local dogcatcher, and with the House and Senate gone, all that Democrats could hope for was the White House – and they’d been trounced. Demographics aren’t destiny after all. They find themselves on the outside of a duly elected white nationalist government – there will be mass deportations and police will now be “unfettered” – to take care of the (black) thugs with no questions asked, and gay folks better get back in the closet – not to mention the end to all that environmental stuff, and the end of regulation of the financial industry. Legal abortion won’t be legal anymore. Muslims will be gone too. Obamacare will be gone. The last traces of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will be gone too – Jeff Sessions always hated it. Democrats in Congress would have to listen to Trump rub it in – knowing that their party is a mess. No one wants it – not with its “old guard” that’s so damned old and useless, and rather boring. They have no charismatic young stars. There won’t be another Obama any time soon – not in this party of old farts. Trump’s first address to Congress – his opening night – would be their closing night.

That’s pretty much what it was, but it was not quite as bad as either side feared. Philip Rucker and Robert Costa report it this way:

President Trump sought to repackage his hardline campaign promises with a moderate sheen Tuesday night, declaring what he termed “a new chapter of American greatness” of economic renewal and military might in his first joint address to Congress.

Seeking to steady his presidency after a tumultuous first 40 days, Trump had an air of seriousness and revealed flashes of compassion as he broadly outlined a sweeping agenda to rebuild a country he described as ravaged by crime and drugs, deteriorating infrastructure and failing bureaucracies.

Trump’s 60-minute speech touched on his plans to overhaul the nation’s health-care system and tax code, but it was short on specifics and heavy on lofty prose. Struggling to steer a bitterly divided nation with his job-approval ratings at historic lows, Trump effectively pleaded with the American people to give him a chance and to imagine what could be achieved during his presidency.

“We are one people, with one destiny,” Trump said quietly near the end. “The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us. We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts.”

The time for trivial fights is behind us? Will he stop tweeting about everything that irks him the moment it irks him? That’s not likely, but there was this:

He called on Congress to pass paid family leave, a reference to a long-held Democratic Party priority that brought liberal lawmakers to their feet to applaud. And he pledged to work with Muslim allies to extinguish Islamic State terrorists, going so far as to acknowledge the killings of Muslims as well as Christians in the Middle East.

That’s a first – so the only good Muslim isn’t a dead Muslim after all – but the rest was predictable:

Trump did not back away from his most controversial policies. He used typically bellicose language to describe the fight against the Islamic State, calling it “a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, women and children of all faiths and all beliefs.” He made a point to utter the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” which Republicans cheered heartily.

H.R. Macmaster, his new national security advisor – he had to fire his first and two others turned down the job – is on records saying that those three words only make things worse, so he slapped Macmaster down, and there was this:

The president forcefully defended his travel ban of refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries – an executive order that was halted in federal court – as necessary to prevent the entry of foreigners who do not share America’s values.

“We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America,” Trump said. “We cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists.”

Nothing changes, and there was this:

On foreign affairs, Trump said he would honor historic alliances – and explicitly stated his support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, on which he had wavered during his campaign – but said he would seek new ones as well, even with former adversaries. The latter seemed an indirect reference to potentially working to combat terrorism with Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded meddled in the November election in hopes of helping Trump.

“America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where share interests align,” Trump said. “We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict.”

Putin hates NATO and the EU but we can work something out? Good luck with that, and there was this:

Trump declared the time had come to rewrite trade deals and alliances in terms that benefit the United States, irrespective of global pressures.

“My job is not to represent the world,” Trump said. “My job is to represent the United States of America.”

The whole concept of American global leadership, slowly developed since 1945 and long a given the Western world, is gone. It’s been replaced with “not our problem” now. This is a major shift, and there was this:

Trump, as he typically does, basked in his electoral feat and cast his ascent to the presidency in epic terms. “In 2016, the earth shifted beneath our feet,” he said, saying that a “rebellion” that started as “a quiet protest” morphed into “a loud chorus” and finally “an earthquake.”

The chorus became an earthquake? Who wrote that? But mixed metaphors aside, earthquakes are usually classified as disasters, and there was this:

He said he was sent to Washington to deliver on the promises he made on the campaign trail – arguably chief among them, to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Trump argued that everyday Americans cannot succeed “in an environment of lawless chaos” at the borders.

Net migration across the Mexican border has reversed since 2009 and crime rates in our border areas are lower than the rates everywhere else in the country – but whatever.

And then there was Obamacare:

Trump challenged both parties in Congress to move quickly to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the signature health-care law of former president Barack Obama.

“Obamacare is collapsing, and we must act decisively to protect all Americans,” Trump said. “Action is not a choice; it is a necessity.”

He pointed at Nancy Pelosi as he said that. She scowled. That won’t win her over, but he made others happy:

House Republicans immediately rallied behind Trump’s remarks, interpreting his words as an endorsement of several key parts of their own plan. In an email to reporters, an aide to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) wrote that Trump “embraced” the House plan and demonstrated that “the White House and Congress are coalescing around a particular approach” that includes individual health-savings plans and tax credits.

That’s the plan, or at least part of it, but the Tea Party crowd on that side wants none of it. Tax credits just give away free money to lazy losers. Expect an actual healthcare plan in six months, or twelve, or never. Paul Ryan was making the best of a bad situation, but this was nice:

Trump opened his address by noting the wave of anti-Semitic vandalism and threats targeting Jewish cemeteries, community centers and schools. “We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms,” Trump said.

He finally said something, not much, but something, which was countered by this:

President Donald Trump was met with boos and hissing Tuesday night when he mentioned a new office within the Department of Homeland Security, created to highlight crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

“We must support the victims of crime,” Trump said before introducing his new office, created via executive order in late January.

“I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American Victims. The office is called VOICE – Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement,” he said. “We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.”

Trump then launched into the stories of guests in attendance whose relatives had been murdered by undocumented immigrants.

He was right all along. Those people really are rapists and murderers and drug dealers. The government will now document that, and update the list weekly. Democrats also responded with thumbs down and boos to his call to repeal and replace Obamacare too, and there was this:

President Donald Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” during an address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday drew audible coughing and laughter from inside the chamber.

“We have begun to drain the swamp of government corruption by imposing a 5 year ban on lobbying by executive branch officials,” Trump said, before the coughing began, “and a lifetime ban on becoming lobbyists for a foreign government.”

Fill your cabinet with Wall Street billionaires, and hire lobbyists for foreign governments like Paul Manafort, and people will laugh, but Josh Marshall offers this:

I think purely as a speech, its crafting, the thematic cadence and delivery, it was pretty average to unremarkable. It wasn’t a very good speech. Having said that, I think Trump may pick up a few points of support from the public because he seemed like a fairly normal person delivering it. This is admittedly an extremely low standard. But when you compare this Trump to the meltdown press conference Trump or the rageful, spewing Twitter Trump, he can’t help but seem more balanced and less threatening by comparison. Low bar. SAD! But there it is.

But there was this:

There were three or four times when a large number of Democrats grumbled or guffawed or just chortled and laughed at Trump more or less to his face. The first and perhaps the biggest example was when he took credit for “draining the swamp.” I suspect his handlers worked very hard prepping him not to react when this happened. As far as I could tell, he never did. I suspect it was very difficult. Having a tightly prepared speech probably helped. In any case, he didn’t. And it’s very good for him that he didn’t.

Republicans were relieved by that, which might have been the mission:

Probably the most important thing about this speech was this: It had some softer edges. Trump did well for himself and for the country by explicitly and clearly condemning the wave of threats and attacks on Jewish institutions and the anti-immigrant hate crime in Kansas. But the speech itself did not strike me as more aspirational or more focused on unity, as White House staffers suggested it would be. It seemed like the same fundamentally dark vision of a decimated America, just with the volume turned down a notch or two. There was no ‘American carnage’. But it was still the worst recovery in 60 years, manipulated statistics to make it seem like the murder rate is the highest in two generations when in fact it’s very close to the lowest and the bizarre and dystopic references to ‘criminal cartels’ overrunning the country.

Yes, he kept talking up the 250th anniversary of the country in 9 years and how this would be the moment when we started becoming great again. But it was fundamentally similar to the convention and inauguration speeches, just with the volume turned down.

Marshall says that everyone expects the “demonstrably false claims” now, but at lower volume they do seem to go down easier, so nothing changes:

The President’s advisors, especially Steve Bannon, can read the polls as well as anyone else. But they’ve set as their goal not shifting those numbers (at least not worrying about them for now) so much as providing repeated evidence and claims to convince his base supporters that he’s following through on what he promised he would do. I said I would do this and I did. You can count on me. I’m different.

That’s my take on what this speech was really about.

Kevin Drum sees the same thing:

He mostly stuck to the prompter and kept his tone fairly level. He threw in a few whoppers, but really, not many by his standards. Anybody who disliked Trump beforehand probably still dislikes him, but my guess is that he didn’t scare off very many folks in the middle who are still in “give him a chance” mode.

On the other hand, gesturing directly toward Nancy Pelosi when he ripped into the “imploding Obamacare disaster” sure wasn’t designed to make him any friends among Democrats:

It’s a funny thing. Trump doesn’t seem to realize that Republicans can’t just wave a magic wand and do anything they want. They’re going to need Democratic support for most of his initiatives. But that doesn’t stop him from insulting them at every turn. If this represents his crack negotiating skills, I wouldn’t hold my breath for any great trade deals.

Trump is who he is. He likes to insult people to get his way with them, and earlier in the day he had suggested that the nationwide wave of bomb threats to Jewish community centers and school, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries was a false flag operation – Jews doing that to their own people, to make him look bad. The ADL is not happy, but he is who he is. Everyone’s out to get him.

This speech did no more than take the edge off that narcissistic paranoia, hiding it a bit, but Matthew Yglesias thinks it’s more than that:

Shorn of context, to witness a president of the United States deliver a speech so devoid of the customary humility or sense of America’s role in the world would be shocking. Just as it would ordinarily be shocking to see a president attacking the media as the “enemy of the American people” or denouncing a “so-called judge” or any of the other dozen or so bizarre things that Trump does in a given week.

His campaign was fascinating from start to finish – if at times horrifying – because of the litany of similar novelties. His business – brand licensing and real estate – succeeded by the same attention seeking. His reality TV career is the same story.

But Trump is no longer a novelty candidate, a branding magnate, or a B-List TV show host. He’s now the president of the United States. He’s the subject of constant, obsessive media attention. And like any overexposed celebrity, he’s getting tiresome.

And he’s getting pointless:

If you take any one moment from the Trump Show out of context, it’s striking. But together, Trump’s antics are now banal. He says, tweets, and does weird things. He gets attention. He pisses people off while thrilling others. Tonight, he even managed to attract attention and garner praise for slightly dialing it down. But speeches are supposed to be tools to help do the work of actually being president – learning about the issues, making decisions about trade-offs, and collaborating to get things done.

Amid the nonstop and increasingly tedious theatricality, Trump is only ever performing the role of the president; he’s never doing the job.

And there’s a reason for that:

Trump has, it’s clear, no interest in governing. He only just discovered yesterday that health care policy is complicated. He claims to be deliberately leaving political appointments unfilled as some kind of gesture of small-government zeal, but in reality because he seems too lazy to come up with a properly vetted roster. He clearly had a blast campaigning but had no expectation that he would actually win. That allowed him to campaign in an unusually irresponsible manner – tossing off incoherent or impossible promises with no consideration of how difficult, or downright impossible, it would be to deliver on them.

The surreal campaign that resulted from this – the Trump Show – was a thing to behold. But having won, Trump now faces the humdrum task of turning his nonsense into something workable. Yet while there are certainly people plugging away at this – Reince Priebus, Gary Cohn, Steve Bannon, Mick Mulvaney, and various Cabinet secretaries – Trump is clearly still focused on the show. Given the chance to reboot and explain what he wants to do, Trump simply gives another campaign rally speech.

That’s why Trump had no opening-night jitters. Every single Republican had those, for good reason – and no matter what they say, this opening night did not go well. On Broadway, when there’s an opening night like this, the show closes – on opening night. This one can’t. This is not Broadway. This is our government, and now this is our life.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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