Genuine Pivot or Deliberate Re-Branding? Donald Trump’s Speech to the Joint Session of Congress, Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Why this post?

To post a comment on Donald Trump’s first speech to a Joint Session of Congress, a full 2 weeks after the fact, may seem like a fruitless exercise.  However, a closer look at what he said and why he said it may be well worth the effort.  The very fact that an interval of 2 weeks could make analysis of this nationally- anticipated speech seem dated is in itself a commentary on the President’s style and strategy. Whether deliberate or spontaneous, Trump’s style is guaranteed to keep us guessing about what he really intends. His erratic behavior creates uncertainty about what to expect and what to count on.  Across all sectors of government, it keeps us in the dark about likely future actions.

Pivot or Re-Branding?

The Joint Session of Congress speech was followed by an outpouring of speculation about whether that so deliberate reading from the teleprompter might indicate a “pivot” to a calmer, more judicious Mr. Trump.  Looking “presidential” definitely seems to have worked to his favor.  The startling abandonment of his typical aggressive, derisive tone threw the public off its guard.  The relief was audible. At last, Trump was showing that he could be a leader of this great nation..  As Paul Krugman noted,  “It was a speech filled with falsehoods and vile policy proposals, but read calmly off the teleprompter — and suddenly everyone was declaring the liar in chief “presidential.”

True, some in the national audience were not so easily convinced. Is this kinder and gentler persona the new Donald Trump, they asked, or the same old Trump playing a role of lofty, more temperate Commander-in-Chief?  Certainly, given the often wide discrepancy between what the President has been saying and what he has been doing, there are plenty of grounds to doubt the sincerity of any transformation.  How can we tell whether the pivot is genuine or a clever smoke screen concealing the intention to release more extreme Executive Orders and hurl insults at people considered to be his “enemies”?

It did not take long before the answer was manifest: Trump started to tweet accusations of wire tapping against Barack Obama. Six days after the avalanche of praise for the new “presidential” Trump, Robert Reuben wrote in his blog:  “The Old Trump Is Back.  In fact, He Never Left” (Robert Reuben’s Website, 06 March/17):  “But that all ended Saturday morning when the old Trump – the “birther,” the hatemonger, the thin-skinned paranoid, the liar, the reckless ranter, the vindictive narcissist, the whack-o conman – reemerged in a series of unprecedented and unverified accusations about his predecessor.”

In a media climate consumed with stories laced with dishonesty: daily tweets impugning the truthfulness of journalists, speculation about the integrity of the voting process, and dark innuendoes about Russian cyber hacks, it is tempting to be conspiratorial about the President’s more temperate style.  Rather than marking a genuine pivot to new ways of thinking and governance, the change in tone seems to have been just a clever strategy to garner our attention.


Does it really matter?

The distinction is important.  If the President was deliberately feigning “decent” behavior to get our attention, we who oppose his policies need to be forewarned about what he will do to “win.”

What the President chose to highlight in his speech and what he left out offers further clues about the sincerity of the so-called presidential pivot.  Consider that he chose not to mention, for example:  the warming of the planet, the widening chasm between the rich and the poor, the role of Russia in hacking the election, the specifics about how “to replace” the Affordable Care Act, women’s reproductive health and freedom to choose, and the protection of natural resources and the preservation of wild places. The President had nothing new to say about some of the greatest challenges his administration is likely to face in the coming decades.  Everything he presented to Congress and the American people on February 28 had already been forecast in his campaign speeches.

Finally, two matters, in particular, that the President chose to highlight in the speech reveal the old, unrepentant Trump going to the dark side to fulfill campaign promises to his base.  First, he doubled down on pursuing harsh measures against undocumented immigrants by calling for a new agency, VOICE (Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement), established ostensibly to address the grievances of people victimized by crimes perpetrated by undocumented immigrants, and, second, he elevated the efficacy of unleashing greater military force by mandating historically huge increases in spending for the Pentagon.  His insistent mantra in defending this increase, is “Must fight only to win!”

In a prescient article, “How Trump Wins by Losing” (New York Times, 03/05//17, Tim Wu quotes George Orwell, “The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous” to illustrate the essence of Trump’s strategy. What the President really wants, says Wu, is to “generate a riveting spectacle,” to be at the forefront of our attention (mindshare) at all times and for an indefinite period.  Thus, although he wants to win, what is more important is that the public focus on him as the central player.

The logic of Wu’s thesis leads inevitably to the fact that the best way to make Trump a loser is to ignore him.  Wu concludes, “To live by attention is to die by it as well, and he [Trump] may end up less a victim of political defeat than of waning interest, the final fate of every act.”

— Alice Day


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