On Tuesday night, President Trump defied critics by proving he could read a teleprompter. In Trump’s hands, any evolution toward mastery of that skill could prove as dangerous as the improvisational oratorical bullying for which he is better known, for Trump’s reading style renders the articulation of evil into a banal-sounding sing-song celebration of resentment, greed, grief, and death.
The consensus forming among political observers on Donald J. Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress is that the president seemed “presidential.” Well, sure, if your idea of presidential is an authoritarian maniac who can read a teleprompter.
When speaking in his more customary off-the-cuff style, Trump’s “prime rhetorical instrument is percussion,” writes media critic Todd Gitlin. So true.
All those short phrases and mini-sentences that follow declarative statements in your standard Trump speech—“so true,” “believe me,” “big league”—rhythmically reinforce whatever he just said, kind of like the bah-DUH-bah a drummer will use to punctuate a comedian’s joke. Devoid of that device, and taken in contrast with his usual style, a speech like the one the president delivered last night is too easily deemed “presidential” for simply adhering to the stylistic norms of the chamber in which it was delivered.
But with his speech, Trump again called for the deportation of millions of Americans, falsely claimed that only immigrants who committed crimes were being thrown out of the United States, promised a massive increase in military spending, and exploited the pain of a family grieving the loss of Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens, Navy SEAL, in a raid gone awry in Yemen, which the president deemed to have been a great success, despite the killing of civilians in its execution. Earlier in the day, the president seemed less certain of the mission’s glory, blaming the loss of Owens’s life on “the generals.” Trump must have been profoundly irked when Bill Owens, the slain SEAL’s father, told the Miami Herald that he had declined to receive Trump when the president requested to meet Owens at Dover Air Force Base, where they had each come to witness the arrival of the younger Owens’s body.
Bill Owens told the Herald’s Julie K. Brown that he was deeply offended by Trump’s treatment of another Gold Star family—the parents of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in 2004 in Iraq. The late captain’s father, Khizr Khan, addressed the Democratic National Convention, demanding that Trump read the U.S. Constitution before pledging to ban Muslims from entering the country. (The Khans are Muslim.)
The spurning of Trump and his minions by Bill Owens, himself a military veteran, did not deter White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in a February 8 briefing, from telling reporters that anyone who questions the success of the Yemen raid did a disservice to the memory of the slain SEAL.
In his speech to Congress, Trump clearly exploited the Owens family’s grief—and perhaps political divisions—by citing the presence of Carryn Owens, the widow of William Ryan Owens, in the chamber after assuring all in attendance that James Mattis, the secretary of defense, had determined the Yemen mission to have yielded a treasure trove of intelligence. The information gleaned from the raid that may have killed more than two dozen civilians “will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies," Trump said Mattis told him.
The grieving widow couldn’t help but dissolve into tears as the president told her that her late husband, age 36, would never be forgotten, and Trump was able to use that visual as vindication for his decision to commence with the Yemen raid in January, during the administration’s chaotic early days.
The heroic circumstances of Owens’s death also served as a justification of sorts for Trump’s plan to increase the defense budget by $54 billion, at the expense of other government agencies. While Trump described the increase as giving to the military “the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve,” it is more likely a cold-hearted economic stimulus package that amounts to a Trump two-fer: Creating jobs while decimating the agencies tasked with regulating businesses and decimating the ranks of unionized civil servants.
The narrative created for the president by chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon and his deputy, StephenMiller (the two are reported to have written the speech) also squared nicely with Trump’s frequent demonization of Muslims, painting all with a terrorist brush. What Bannon and Miller lack in rhetorical artistry was matched for the speech’s sinister arrangement of words, as when the president said, “We cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists.”
The term “sanctuary,” of course, has been much in the news as of late, thanks to Trump’s constant attacks on “sanctuary cities”—municipalities that have declared that they will not contribute resources to federal efforts designed to deport undocumented immigrants. By deploying the term “sanctuary” in the context of terrorism, Trump conflated the dangers he says are posed by undocumented immigrants with those posed by thee maybe-terrorists his travel ban ostensibly targets. Neat trick.
The president also used the grief of families to paint undocumented immigrants, en masse, as murderers, having invited to the chamber the families of people who had lost their lives at the hands of criminals who had crossed the border. While Trump claimed that his deportation orders only target the “bad ones,” some 25 percent of those deported since Trump took office, according to PolitiFact, had no criminal records.
Despite his campaign promise to defund Planned Parenthood, Trump gave some lip service to protecting women’s health, and promised a paid family leave proposal. (The version he first offered during the campaign would have benefited only middle-class families via tax credits.)
Discussing his pledge to “repeal and replace Obamacare,” Trump used duplicitous language, saying that people with pre-existing conditions would have “access to coverage” under his plan—words that could mean throwing everybody with pre-existing conditions into different policies than those without, and charging higher premiums for that care.
The day after his secretary of education suggested that historically black colleges and universities—founded out of the necessity created by racial segregation—exemplified the glories of so-called “school choice,” Trump opened his speech with a recognition of Black History Month and all we have left to do to continue the work of the civil rights movement, especially given the recent spate of bomb threats against Jewish day-care centers and other institutions, and the desecration of Jewish graveyards. As a throwaway, he mentioned in that context “last week’s shooting in Kansas City”—the killing of an Indian national by a white man who apparently mistook the man for someone from the Middle East. Trump mentioned nothing about the man having been a non-white immigrant who was targeted by a white veteran of the U.S. Navy.
It was the first time Trump addressed the incident in the six days that followed murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, and he didn’t give the dead man the dignity of speaking his name. Not very presidential, if you ask me.