the national circus

Trump’s Big Speech Failed at Every Level

Sad! Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, what to make of the State of the Union, the continuing blackface scandal in the Virginia statehouse, and a leaked accounting of Donald Trump’s “executive time.”

In the State of the Union, Donald Trump called for unity while taking many partisan shots. How do you determine the success of a speech like Trump’s?

Even looking at the 80-minute-plus laundry list from Trump’s point of view, the speech seems to have failed at every level.

If Trump’s number-one political goal was to get his wall built, he didn’t advance the cause but signaled his surrender. His incessantly repeated pre-speech threat that he might declare a “national emergency” to circumvent Congress and get his way evaporated entirely last night. Why? He’s a paper tiger. He’d only been blustering about declaring an emergency in the first place to drum up phony suspense that might draw viewers to tune in. Even he has figured out that too many Republicans in Congress are openly opposed to that legally dubious power grab for him to try it now. Nor will the GOP happily sign on to another politically self-immolating government shutdown. So when Trump declared “I’ll get it built” last night, that can be translated to mean: “I have surrendered and will claim that whatever compromise Congress puts forth by the February 15 deadline means ‘I got my wall.’” Nancy Pelosi has won.

If Trump’s biggest personal goal was to impede what he called “ridiculous partisan investigations,” he has no more chance of accomplishing that than Richard Nixon did when he made a similar pitch in the 1974 State of the Union, seven months before Watergate drove him out of office. If anything, the investigations are metastasizing: Witness the sprawling subpoena that descended on the Trump Inaugural Committee from the Southern District of New York just as Trump was preparing to give his speech. In addition to the ever-growing body of evidence that Trump is a witting Russian agent, there are more criminal investigations of him, his business, his family, and his crime syndicate of a Cabinet than we can easily count. Let’s not forget that in the end it was simple tax evasion, not capital crimes, that brought down Al Capone.

If Trump’s stylistic goal was to somehow reset his image two years into his nasty presidency, his efforts were risible. Having purported to deliver a “message of unity” in his 2017 address to Congress, and having called for summoning “the unity we need to deliver for the people” in 2018, this time he came out for “cooperation, compromise, and the common good.” It is hard to imagine that a single American — whether Trump supporter or foe — bought this bunk any more than they buy his annual promise of an infrastructure push. His efforts to milk the touching real-life stories of the White House’s invited spectators were also disingenuous. He called for a $500 million budget over ten years to fight childhood cancers — less than 10 percent of the $5.7 billion he wants to build his wall this year. His tender words about Holocaust survivors were outrageous coming from a man who refused to condemn Charlottesville neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” and countenanced anti-Semitic iconography exploited by his campaign.

If Trump’s rock-bottom goal was to provide television entertainment, here too he failed. The most enjoyable aspect of the entire event was watching Pelosi. Her sarcastic applause when Trump issued his bogus call for compromise – instantly christened the “fuck you” clap by Patton Oswalt – went viral. No less delightful was the sight of her repeatedly thumbing through the pages of his speech on camera as if she were looking for something more substantive, or at least more amusing, to read. It was worthy of a Tina Fey SNL bit. It was also fun to watch the expanded ranks of women in the Democratic caucus seize Trump’s phony embrace of female empowerment and throw it back at him and his party in a spontaneous eruption of joyous victory.

This isn’t to say that Trump achieved nothing. He did drone on so long that he pushed Stacey Abrams’s response to the waning minutes of prime time, almost 11 p.m. in the East. And he did inspire unanimous cheerleading from the Murdoch contingent: Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham at Fox News, Michael Goodwin at the New York Post, and Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal (“a deeply adept speech in terms of policy”). And occasionally those not on News Corp payrolls found bright spots too: On Morning Joe, David Ignatius of the Washington Post declared Trump’s invocation of World War II and the Holocaust “moving and powerful.” Less convinced was Ann Coulter, who tweeted that it was “the lamest, sappiest, most intentionally tear-jerking SOTU ever,” and urged Trump to fire whoever supplied him with such poetic flourishes as his invocation of the “golden beaches of California.” But surely he can’t fire Ivanka.

Prominent voices from both parties have called for Virginia governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, to resign after he first admitted to, then denied posing in a racist photograph that has surfaced from his medical school yearbook (while unexpectedly volunteering a previously unknown blackface incident). Steve King and Mitch McConnell have recently been chased by similar incidents — if Northam leaves office, will it set a new standard for politicians of both parties?

Northam is a former Republican turned Democrat. Now he is considering resurrecting himself as an Independent, according to the Washington Post. Regardless of party affiliation, what’s beyond dispute is that he’s an idiot who has yet to settle on a plausible account of why his 1984 medical school yearbook page looked like a Ku Klux Klan recruitment flyer. Whether he resigns or not, his decision will have no effect on the double standard that’s already in place. Democrats believe that politicians with racist histories should be drummed out of their party. GOP leaders believe that such politicians should be tolerated as long as there might be some political advantage to be gained in keeping them in the tent.

It doesn’t pass the laugh test that Republicans are condemning Northam while embracing a Republican president who ran on birtherism and nativism, speaks of NFL players as if they are slaves, and routinely (as recently as last night) drums up hate against Latino immigrants and Muslims. It took years for GOP leaders to turn on King, the unabashed neo-Nazi congressman from Iowa, and even so, they stripped him of committee assignments only after he had been reelected in the 2018 midterms. The same GOP Establishment that purports to be outraged by Northam looks the other way as Republican governors routinely conduct bogus “voter fraud” initiatives and rewrite state election rules to disenfranchise minority voters. Nor did anyone at the top of the GOP complain when the last Republican governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, broke with recent precedent, and not only declared Confederate History Month in 2010 but left any mention of slavery out of his proclamation.

The notion that Virginia or any other swath of America with a racist past can overcome that history overnight is repeatedly proven a fantasy. Chief Justice John Roberts rationalized the maiming of the Voting Rights Act with a declaration that will sully his reputation forever: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Today Virginia’s Democratic attorney general, Mark Herring, confessed that he also donned blackface in college. And by the way, what kind of establishment is Eastern Virginia Medical School, Northam’s alma mater? We’ve now learned that what it calls “troubling” neo-Confederate photos were appearing in its yearbook pages as recently as 2013. We can only hope that its doctors are out-of-network for all medical plans except the KKK’s.

According to a prolific White House leakernearly 60 percent of Donald Trump’s schedule is unstructured “executive time,” a euphemism for watching TV and responding to the news.  Is the leak a targeted subversion or more evidence of a disorganized White House?

Actually, it’s both. The White House remains in chaos, and we are entering the Night-of-the-Long-Knives stage in the bunker where it’s every dead-ender for him or herself. It’s hard to imagine in any case that anyone is shocked by this revelation. It would be far more shocking — and worse — news if a leaker told us that Trump had reclaimed this 60 percent of his day for work. The last thing we need is for him to increase the volume of havoc he’s inflicting upon the country and the world.

Frank Rich: Trump’s Big Speech Failed at Every Level