Style Versus Substance

President Donald Trump's first speech to Congress and to the American public was not a disaster of epic proportions. Normally, I wouldn't begin a speech review with such a statement, but with Trump, the possibility always exists (see: Trump's first press conference). Trump managed to clear the bar of "speaks like the public wants to hear a president speak, and not like an enraged adolescent on the playground." Again, for any other president this bar wouldn't even be mentioned, because it has never been an issue before now. Because it was Donald Trump, however, much of the audience watching the speech breathed a sigh of relief that Trump finally managed to "look presidential."

Grading Trump's first big speech has to be split into two different categories. Now, much of the mainstream media chose to focus solely on the first aspect of Trump's speech: style. Precious little attention was paid to the substance of the speech, which is why I'm saving it for last in my own review. Suffice it to say for now that I think Trump did much better on style than on substance.

Stylistically, it was the best speech Trump has ever given. Even his harshest critics have been admitting as much. Donald Trump has finally learned how to read a speech off a TelePrompTer without it sounding ridiculously awful.

Way back in the campaign season, at some point his advisors forced Trump into only giving pre-written speeches off a TelePrompTer. This achieved its goal: Trump appeared a lot less frighteningly unhinged as he had been during his ad-libbed stream-of-consciousness speeches. But he sounded not just scripted, but downright uncomfortable with the whole concept of reading a speech someone else had obviously written for him. Trump would pause in all the wrong places, carefully enunciate unfamiliar words with a look of surprise in his eyes, and transform what were supposed to be forceful statements into questions with his delivery. He sounded like nothing more than a terrified student badly attempting to read a poem at a school talent show, in fact.

'Twas the night?
Before Christmas.
And all through?!?
The house -- and, believe me, it was a fantastic house, a tremendous house, because I built it....

Every speech he read with what can only be described as a downright confused cadence, in other words.

But that all ended last night. Trump has finally gotten the hang of reading a speech. He's finally taken someone else's advice and changed his delivery to sound much more natural and polished. I almost expected to see a speech coach beaming with pride on the sidelines, in fact.

Trump's transformation was notable not only for his newfound skill at reading prepared text. He did far less arm-waving and hand-gesturing than he normally does. These had done nothing to help Trump before with TelePrompTers -- in fact, they made his hesitant delivery even more noticeable, since he had a few go-to gestures which he always used when he had to read an unfamiliar word (the ones he would inevitably turn into questions). But the speech coach must have been doubly proud last night, since Trump kept the arm-waving to a minimum.

Donald Trump's speech was stylistically notable for reasons other than just his delivery, though. He denied himself all the favorite oratory tools in his regular toolbox last night. In rallies, Trump loves to fire up a crowd by shouting, and he loves to get them on their feet by chanting favored slogans ("Build the wall!", etc.). He did neither of these last night. He also loves to ad lib and toss his own little bon mots into the mix, but he restrained himself (for the most part) from doing so last night as well. Gone also were the self-reverent begging for adulation that Trump normally engages in ("Are you with me? He's with me! Come up here and tell the people how much you're with me!"). Not a word was uttered about the dastardly liberal media, even. His first couple of paragraphs could even have been read by a Democratic president, when Trump condemned anti-Semitism and violence.

Once again, for any other president we wouldn't even be mentioning any of this. But Trump was so different last night from all his previous public speaking that it was indeed notable. He sounded more natural than he ever has. He sounded calm -- no ranting and raving. He did his best to sound reasonable and presidential -- two things he's never really even attempted, previously. Stylistically, it was the best political speech he's ever given.

The big stylistic moment of the night was watching the widow weep. This brought Trump lots of praise from the media commentators, but it horrified many for the sheerly exploitative way Trump used the woman. As with many things in a politically-divided America, it mostly depends on your politics as to how you saw this moment.

Now, Trump certainly isn't the first president to use an average American in the gallery to score political points of one sort or another. Ronald Reagan began this tradition, when he praised Lenny Skutnik for his heroism after an airplane hit the 14th Street Bridge and crashed into the Potomac River (which had happened only two weeks before Reagan's speech was given). All presidents since have used this tactic as well, so Trump certainly can't be held accountable for the tradition itself.

But Trump really went out on a limb by having the widow in the gallery. There are plenty of unanswered questions about the raid which took her husband's life, and the Trump administration's boastful answers may not, in fact, reflect the reality. Some in the media are pointing this out today, such as Paul Waldman of the Washington Post:

Let's review the facts. The Yemen raid on Jan. 29 was the first military action of Trump's presidency. The idea for raiding this compound, partly in pursuit of the leader of AQAP leader [sic] (who wasn't there) was presented to Trump over dinner one night, and according to NBC News, military representatives "told Trump that they doubted that the Obama administration would have been bold enough to try it," which was apparently good enough to get him to sign off.

Then almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The militants knew they were coming, possibly tipped off by the increased sound of drones in the area. The team encountered stronger resistance than it expected. A couple of dozen civilians were killed (we don't know exactly how many, but it could be as many as 30), including children, among them an 8-year-old American girl. Owens was killed. A $75 million Osprey aircraft was damaged in a "hard landing" and had to be destroyed lest it fall into AQAP's hands.

We all know that if it had been Hillary Clinton who ordered the Yemen raid, there would already be multiple congressional investigations underway and subpoenas would be falling like rain. That's one thing the White House doesn't have to worry about. But they decided that the way to handle questions about the botched raid was to use Ryan Owens as a shield. The raid was a terrific success, said spokesman Sean Spicer, and "anyone that would suggest it's not a success does a disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens."

But the questions, and the criticisms, kept coming, most pointedly from Owens' father, himself a veteran. "Don't hide behind my son's death," Bill Owens told the Miami Herald, after refusing to meet with President Trump at Dover Air Force Base.

The article goes on to point out the fact that earlier in the day, Trump placed all the blame on the generals, saying "they lost Ryan." But the worst part of the display was (naturally) an ad-lib remark by Trump:

As the applause went on and Carryn Owens stood weeping, Trump offered what in the tiny, narcissistic world he exists in is the highest form of praise: "And Ryan is looking down, right now, you know that. And he's very happy, because I think he just broke a record," referring to the length of the ovation.

What exactly is that supposed to mean? Owens set the "Longest Applause for Dead Servicemember In Joint Speech to Congress" record? What kind of person could possibly think that would matter to anyone? Oh, right -- Donald Trump would.

What is being hailed as the crowning moment during Trump's speech could eventually boomerang on him, if the claims of the mission's sweeping success turn out to be vastly overstated. But even this moment was nothing more than style, not substance.

On the substance of his speech, Trump hasn't really changed one iota. It was a softer, gentler presentation, but the core messages remained exactly the same. Immigrants are bad, and are probably going to kill you in your sleep sometime real soon. Loudly proclaiming "radical Islamic terrorism" will immediately defeat all terrorists everywhere, because it is a magical phrase for presidents to use. Tax cuts are good. Obamacare is bad. Democrats are mean for not jumping on board the Trump train. You know, the usual thing.

Trump made very little news in his speech. Republicans were reportedly desperately seeking details from Trump on the direction to head forward in upcoming legislation. But Trump barely even mentioned tax cuts, and didn't address any of the details of the grand tax reform plan Republicans are reportedly working on. He gave no guidance, and offered no hint of what he'd accept or reject. Will Trump hold firm on not touching entitlement spending and preserve Social Security, as he repeatedly promised on the campaign trail? Hard to tell. Will Trump just go along with whatever Paul Ryan wants? Again, impossible to tell from Trump's speech.

Trump also made very little news on immigration. Earlier in the day, the White House was teasing the possibility that Trump would boldly lay out an agenda for comprehensive immigration reform, but the only indication of that in the speech was Trump talking about letting immigrants in by merit (which, though he didn't mention it, probably means ending relatives being able to sponsor each other, the way they can now). Trump talked of enforcing the rules which state that immigrants should be able to support themselves, which isn't exactly what I'd call comprehensive immigration reform. He spoke vaguely about a "pathway" for immigrants already here, but on close examination it will not be a pathway to citizenship. DREAMers weren't even mentioned at all.

Trump didn't talk much about his budget priorities, other than his plan to shovel more money into the Pentagon and some vague support for infrastructure spending (although possibly with private dollars). The only subject he gave any real details on at all was replacing Obamacare, and even there most of what he said was standard Republican boilerplate. The only real news he made during his list of what has to be in the Obamacare replacement was when Trump seemingly sided with the Paul Ryan faction, which is currently pushing tax credits to help poor and middle-class people buy health insurance (instead of either tax deductions or just flat-out nothing, which is what the other GOP factions are pushing for). But one wonders how strongly Trump is really endorsing one side or another in this fight, as so far he seems content to let Congress haggle over all the details on their own.

On the score of making news by outlining his legislative agenda or priorities, Trump fell short. What did he propose that was truly new last night? Tax credits in the Obamacare replacement plan (maybe). A program called "VOICE" to highlight violence committed by immigrants, for political purposes. A bone he tossed to Democrats on family leave, but likely won't follow through on (unless Ivanka bugs him about it enough, perhaps). That's really about it.

Donald Trump earned high praise for the style and delivery of his speech last night. I'm not sure all of it was truly earned, but -- for him -- it was the best political speech he's ever given. Rated against other presidents, it was fair-to-middlin' at best. Even though Trump was noticeably restrained, there wasn't a whole lot of soaring oratory. But, grading on the Trump curve, he certainly did better than he's ever managed previously.

On substance, however, it was the same-old, same-old. Trump (and his speechwriters) may have managed to soften the language and remove most (not all, mind you) of the scapegoating, but the ideas were still pure Steve Bannon. Trump may soon see a slight boost in his job approval ratings (which are currently lower than any president ever measured, at this point in), but when Congress actually starts having to hash some of this stuff out, it remains to be seen how interested Trump will be in getting into the details. If last night was any indication, Trump doesn't seem overly concerned with the nitty-gritty of how any of his agenda will get through Congress. Meaning that on substance, Trump's speech was really just as vague as any other speech he's ever given.

 

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