Donald Trump once bragged that he could be “more presidential than anybody” — and if that is still just another false boast, his Congressional address proved that for at least one hour, he could seem more presidential than he ever did before. Somebody must have told him that those polls showing his popularity in the toilet are real, not fake, and that if he didn’t want to watch them descend further, this speech presented a chance to “re-set,” as the cable anchors put it.
After his dismal inaugural address, and then five weeks of nightmarish malice and incompetence, that “presidential” bar of expectations is set very low for Trump. So while his speech was well below the standard of most recent presidents, he delivered it calmly and coherently with moments of his undeniable dramatic flair (as when he skillfully and shamelessly exploited the all-too-visible agony of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens’ widow). That was enough to declare this desperate rescue operation a success.
The clearest evidence that Trump was trying to restore a semblance of American decency to his regime — to “normalize” himself as president — came within the first few minutes, when he spoke up at long last against racism and anti-Semitism. He went so far as to mention last week’s racist shooting of two Indian immigrants, one of whom died, in Olathe, Kansas. He had simply ignored the shattering incident (and the unarmed hero who jumped the shooter), provoking an angry editorial in the Kansas City Star, until his staff realized that if he pretended to care, even for a few seconds, this tragedy too could be used to humanize him.
Beyond those contrived moments, the Congressional address was typical Trump — replete with gross demagogy, especially in demonizing immigrants, and devoid of real policy. Indeed, he went beyond his usual recitation of impossible promises and insupportable predictions, predicting that he would virtually abolish narcotics addiction, rebuild the country’s entire infrastructure, immediately and drastically reduce the cost of pharmaceuticals, and spur all those rusting Midwestern factories back into production.
According to him, the repeal of Obamacare will herald a new and cheaper health care system, featuring all the benefits of the Affordable Care Act and none of its costs — including a Medicaid budget sufficiently expanded to “make sure no one is left out” in the 50 states. How will the federal government pay for an even broader Medicaid expansion? Never mind! He has already moved on.
He proposed to budget his vague infrastructure plan at a mere trillion dollars, creating “millions of jobs.” That’s actually a good idea in principle, exactly what Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders advocated last year — but Sanders said forthrightly that he would finance his infrastructure plan by taxing the rich. How will Trump pay for a trillion dollars in infrastructure, when his own budget already proposes to slash the domestic discretionary spending that would finance such a plan?
That Trump budget includes another plan he mentioned, namely the largest peacetime increase in military spending ever — plus higher benefits for veterans, plus “school choice” funding for “millions of African-American and Latino children,” plus a new child-care benefit (which may be nothing more than another tax break for rich families like his own, but still expensive). Oh, and he also vowed to expand drug treatment for those “who have become so badly addicted” to narcotics — when in reality, the Republican health-care plan will throw hundreds of thousands off treatment.
Moreover, his Congressional address promised “historic tax reform” for American corporations, which means reducing corporate levies, and “massive tax relief” for middle-class families — by which he probably means the huge tax cuts he plans to award to the wealthiest Americans, including himself, since there is nothing for the middle class in his plan. In short, he’s slashing tax revenues while planning an enormous expansion of the Pentagon budget, and all the other benefits and programs outlined in his speech, from infrastructure to Medicaid to drug care.
Without a big deficit spree, there is no conceivable fiscal plan that can underwrite Trump’s hucksterism. He makes wild spending promises, swears to reduce taxes, and then complains about the debt incurred by the Obama administration. Such obvious and irreconcilable contradictions have only one rational explanation: This new “presidential” Trump is still lying and dissembling with almost every word. The only difference last night was that he recited the falsehoods from a Teleprompter.