President Donald Trump’s address to the nation on Tuesday night was unimaginative, lacking in energy, and filled with his habitual lies and misrepresentations.
It was also worryingly effective.
Making his case for a border wall over the course of nine short minutes, Trump cited horrible crimes to instill fear in the hearts of millions of viewers. He claimed to speak for all Americans, arguing that insufficient border security was a particular threat to Latinos, black Americans, and even those trying to reach America. Most importantly, he actually defended the morality of his proposed actions: Making a not-so-veiled reference to Barack Obama, he claimed that “rich politicians” build high walls around their homes not because they hate those who are on the outside but rather because they love those who are on the inside.
We’ve become so accustomed to seeing Trump rail without discipline or coherence that it is easy to forget how powerful this basic message is: In his speech, Trump proposed immoral policies while claiming the high ground for himself and made a case that was designed to give the impression that he actually cares about the future of America (as opposed to that of his own family). If Trump had used the vast bully pulpit he has enjoyed for the past four years to paint his political vision in this carefully chosen light—rather than, say, discussing affairs with porn stars, engaging in astonishingly open racism, and making everything about himself—he would likely have had much greater success in reshaping America in his own image.
The scary resonance of Trump’s themes helps to explain why the official Democratic response by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi felt worryingly flat. It is not just that, even on their best day, neither of them can match the ability to hold the attention of an audience that Trump retains even on his worst. It is also that their basic point, while eminently reasonable, lacks the promise of redemption that lies at the heart of the populist project.
The shutdown, Schumer argued, is having terrible consequences for many ordinary Americans, from farmers to taxpayers. Therefore, Trump must finally agree to reopen the government. It is hard to disagree with that, and most Americans will indeed be sick of Washington’s theatrics. But though the politics of reasonableness can explain the craziness of the opposing point of view, it holds little promise in its own right: If Schumer and Pelosi get their way, many voters are bound to think, then things will go back to normal. But was normal that great to begin with?
To be sure, there are a lot of reasons why this short speech is unlikely to help Trump recover from his poor standing in the polls: His attempts to reach beyond his base are far too fitful and inconsistent to bear any fruit among persuadable Americans. Though he would now like the public to blame Democrats for the shutdown, he proudly took credit for it in front of a huge television audience less than a month ago. Most importantly, he is never able to marshal both discipline and the full extent of his charisma at the same time: When he speaks off the cuff at his big rallies, he is scarily good at connecting with his audience—but also alienates a large number of people because he is unable to stay on message. By contrast, when he carefully follows a prewritten script, as he did on Tuesday, he is able to build a powerful populist message—but his dramatic words feel a lot less urgent.
When Trump’s speech was over, I breathed a small sigh of relief: He did not declare a national emergency, as many feared. He is unlikely to broaden his political base. If Democrats field a powerful candidate, he remains likely to lose in 2020. The chances that Trump will consolidate his power, and destroy the American republic, keep dwindling.
But it would be a big mistake to assume that Trump is in such trouble at the moment because the American public is immune to his underlying message. On the contrary, listening to the president Tuesday made me fear for the moment, perhaps only five or 10 years into the unknowable future, when a smarter and more strategic populist could use this kind of national address to drive a variant of Trump’s nasty message home to millions of Americans.