The Fox commentators are now talking too much in the wake of Trump’s first address to Congress. I’m going to try not to do that. Just a few things to mention here.
One, I’m not sure how many in Washington really understand what connected with the American people tonight. I think Trump does understand.
Everyone watching felt the power of the moment when Carryn Owens, widow of Navy SEAL Chief “Ryan” Owens, raised her eyes heavenward from her spot in the gallery, and with tears running down her cheeks said, “I love you, baby” to her fallen husband.
But how many of them understand why such a moment was possible in Trump’s speech? It’s first because Trump didn’t fear to honor Chief Owens, even after the media tried to fan controversy around his death. But mainly, it’s because Trump honored Owens straightforwardly for heroism in the service of his country.
If the second point doesn’t resonate with you automatically, perhaps it never will. The Obamas brought military members and families to speeches in Congress. But the difference was in depicting the military as objects of solicitude – people who needed help or support. The service members’ and families’ sacrifice was spoken of. But not the nobility and honor of their task.
It was like balm to the spirit, to hear a president simply assure a sailor’s widow, not that she had our support, as if she were a collapsing railroad bridge, but that her husband’s legacy is etched into eternity.
That’s what sends the people forth with their heads high, ready to face whatever comes. It appears Trump knows how to say that, for the simplest of reasons: he believes it.
Another resonant passage that I don’t think Washington really understands occurred in the first few minutes, when Trump rattled off a list of companies whose CEOs he had spoken to since he took office, and talked about them investing in America and bringing new jobs.
Any president can do that in a generic way, and many have talked about such things in addresses to Congress. But Trump named so many individual companies, with obvious familiarity and professional comfort. I don’t think the folks in Washington “get” that a whole lot of Americans are proud of those companies, because they work for them. Because they invest in them. Because those companies are a big deal in people’s home towns.
For thousands and thousands of workers, it was a big positive jolt to hear the name of their company enunciated by the president in a speech to Congress.
Just seeing a president be for the same things the people are for – that’s so much of what’s connecting, when Trump is up there speaking. I don’t actually agree with Trump on some big things, like aspects of his trade policy (although I do agree that we should always be negotiating to get foreign tariffs on our goods as low as possible. Obama did poorly at that; both Republicans and Democrats have spotty records in that regard). But Trump talks like someone who sees workers and investors as people to be respected and encouraged, and not as statistical entities to be manipulated. What’s odd is not that so many Americans hear that when he speaks, but that today, so many don’t.
Trump affirmed some things on which the media have fomented doubt in recent days. He spoke of “radical Islamic terrorism,” clarifying that he does not intend to walk back his campaign posture on that formulation. He spoke categorically of repealing and replacing Obamacare. Almost the first words out of his mouth were about the anti-Semitic attacks of the last few weeks, and the appalling shooting of immigrants in Kansas City. He rightly emphasized that Americans are united in repudiating such attacks. He’s right. We are not a people divided in that regard. It’s not leaderly to rebuke the people obliquely for ominous sentiments they don’t even have. The leaderly thing to do is to speak their unity back to them.
I was on Twitter, as usual, for this speech, and saw tweet after tweet go by in which some of the biggest Trump skeptics posted one version or another of this sentiment: “Best speech Trump has given. Most presidential. Surprising. Hitting it out of the park.”
I was surprised, perhaps, at how well it went. But I think you were dramatically surprised only if you really hadn’t seen Trump before he took office. If you had only seen him through the lens of the media. It struck me over and over this evening, as his speech wore on, that this is what Trump does when he’s communicating with an audience directly. When you’re actually seeing Trump, as opposed to the media’s packaged version of Trump, it looks different. He himself speaks and acts differently, when he knows his own message is getting out directly, bypassing all the hostile filters.
I don’t delude myself that the path ahead of him has suddenly cleared. Or, for that matter, that he has thought better of things I disagree with him on, or that he plans to confine himself henceforth to conventional, seemly public behavior. (Grimace emoticon.) But I do think he showed that the hostile media haven’t been able to undermine his connection with his voting base, or pollute his profile with the general public beyond recovery.
What the Washington chattering class doesn’t get, but Trump’s voting base does, is that he hasn’t changed.