Trump tries something new: Sounding ‘presidential’


Tuesday night proved once again the biggest impediment to Trumpism is none other than Donald Trump.

The proof was in the negative: The president’s first address to a joint session of Congress was most striking for its departure from so much of his usual rhetoric, and consequently how well it was received. The substance was pretty much the same as what we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Trump: Build the wall, rebuild our infrastructure, enforce our immigration laws, promote law and order domestically, cut taxes, make trade more “fair,” destroy ISIS but otherwise take a step back from the world stage, put people back to work.

What was different was the style. There were no cheap shots at opponents, no shots at the media. There was very little bragging, replaced by calls for unity. The speech was most reminiscent of his brief remarks shortly after the election was called. When he does this, he catches people off-guard — to his benefit. (If you had Trump saying the words “Black History Month” before “Make America Great Again,” please email me your Powerball picks.)

This is not to say everyone — on the left or the right — will have agreed with Trump. There was orthodoxy as well as heresy for conservatives in particular. But his delivery was far more “presidential,” as most people understand the term, than a lot of what we’ve seen from him. It was the kind of speech that can win him allies rather than enemies.

Some people seem to think the paeans to being “presidential” are a distraction, or even a ruse to get Trump to stop being Trump. I don’t even want Trump to get his way on every issue, but I have to think the best way for Trump to fulfill his agenda would be to sound, stylistically, a bit more like a conventional politician.

Trump at his best, and Tuesday night was a pretty good example of that, puts people off-balance just enough to keep them from uniting against him. Trump at his worst gives people an excuse to oppose him.

There is reason to believe Trump is finally settling into the job. The past week or so has been much calmer and more normal than the first few weeks of his presidency. The key for him will be maintaining that.

Don’t confuse calm and normalcy for agreement. President Obama pushed a lot of policies that a lot of people found extremely disagreeable, but he found some success because he pursued them in a mostly conventional manner. Trump at this point need not worry about losing his most ardent supporters by changing his tone. But he very much has to worry about not having enough support to accomplish his agenda if he doesn’t.

One way Trump probably won’t change: He will always be the kind of executive who outlines aspirations in broad terms, leaves it to others to fill in the details, and then tries to sell whatever they produce. While there were precious few specifics in his speech, there was much reiteration of what he wants in broad terms.

His ability to sell his administration’s results will depend in large part on whether people are willing to keep listening to him. He’s shown he can go about his business in two very different ways. The way he chose with Tuesday night’s speech is more likely to bring him success.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Readers Write: Aug. 20

Where were police in Charlottesville? The recent violence between members of white supremacy groups and those who oppose them was tragic; tragic because it was so predictable. The violence when these groups get together is so frequent, it is a safe assumption that it is inevitable. The question is why in each case the “police are overwhelmed?&rdquo...
Opinion: Tragedy in Charlottesville should unite decent Americans

In the South during the Jim Crow era, the “one-drop rule,” codified into law, asserted that if a person had just one drop of African-American blood, they were considered “black.” I wonder what we’d learn if we gave former KKK leader David Duke and the “white nationalists” who caused havoc in Charlottesville...
Opinion: Sadly, the United States is not ‘better than this’

It has become the go-to cliche for moments like this. We whisper it when someone breaks the mosque window or scrawls hatred on the synagogue wall. It is our assurance and our hope. “We are better than this,” we say. “This is not America.” So it is no surprise to be hearing that sentiment days after white supremacists descended...
Opinion: Context shouldn’t be monuments’ Lost Cause
Opinion: Context shouldn’t be monuments’ Lost Cause

Our country’s tension over Confederate statues and monuments isn’t going away anytime soon. The tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have guaranteed that we’ll be forced to confront why we have hundreds of statues and memorials that were erected to honor our country’s deadliest dispute over our worst practice. In...
Denunciation of 1958 terrorist act still relevant today

Editor’s note: The following column by The Atlanta Constitution Editor Ralph McGill ran in 1958, the day after the bombing of The Temple. Dynamite in great quantity Sunday ripped a beautiful Temple of worship in Atlanta. It followed hard on the heels of a like destruction of a handsome high school at Clinton, Tenn. The same rabid, mad-dog minds...
More Stories