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18 August 2017 04:57 (South Africa)
World

US: Trump’s first speech to Congress:  A credible imitation of an actual, real-life president

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
Photo: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives iin Washington, U.S., February 28, 2017.  REUTERS/Jim Lo Scalzo

Donald Trump dials down the rhetoric to deliver an address that was almost a declaration of the end of his election campaign and the beginning of governing. J BROOKS SPECTOR found that he just about sounds and looks like a real president too.

In a speech billed as something like a combination of a State of the Union speech and a presidential budget message, Donald Trump seemingly carried out a serious, even startling, metamorphosis. He was no longer the fire-breathing, smirking, braying, tweet-wielding tormentor of the mainstream media and Hillary Clinton. Instead, he delivered a credible imitation of an actual, real-life president. And the instant polling afterwards substantiated this transformation. The results, at least at first, were very positive.

Traditionally, 13-year-old Jewish boys deliver a short speech on the occasion of their bar mitzvah with an address that begins with the words, "today I am a man", in recognition of their coming of age in a religious sense. While Donald Trump is neither a 13-year old-boy, nor Jewish (although his powerful son-in-law and his daughter are), this speech was almost a declaration of the end of his election campaign and the beginning of governing. He even shucked off his standard bright red, overlong neck tie (with its covert phallic imagery). Instead, he wore a more usual regimental stripped tie, a more conservative suit and there was no red baseball cap. The visual textures were fascinating.

Right off the top, Trump gave a nod to Black History Month, decried anti-Semitic attacks and saluted the virtues of national unity and strength, national pride and America's indomitable spirit. Right at the beginning, too, there were shifts in his rhetoric. Per the president, American allies will find America is again ready to lead. What happened to America first? But the old Trump poked his head out again as he went on an extended riff about how the country had been going to hell for years and how his electoral rebellion became an earthquake that is poised to make America great again. But no red hat to be seen.

In this Trumpian vision, industry is about to come roaring back, with new infrastructure, new jobs, a powerful military and a rebirth of inner cities. In fact, American industry has already heeded his call to reinvest in the nation. Instant successes include driving costs of government down, deregulation, government hiring freezes, lobbying bans, the rescue of America's coal miners, (the other Donald Trump actually applauds himself), and approval of those very controversial gas and oil pipelines, although they would be made with American steel. Among other victories are his rejection of that evil Trans-Pacific Partnership. There are task forces on violent crime and the dismantling of criminal cartels in the works, a promise to stop drugs coming into the country and better treatment for recovering addicts. Oh, and of course, there will be immigration enforcement to save billions and make everyone safe. The "great, great wall" (do the Chinese know?) IS coming and those bad hombres are already being sent out of Dodge.

On other promises: We shall protect against radical Islamic terrorism. (Wait a minute, didn't he just overrule his new national security advisor who said terminology like that was less than helpful? Oh, never mind. We have a vision.) All those attacks on our civilisation come from outside our borders and the country is just stupid to let such people in the country without extreme vetting. America will not become a beach head for terrorism, he promised. New, tougher steps are coming. As Trump speaks on security, his chin is thrust forward, he is resolute. It is a photo moment. He continues that his Defence Department is, right now, working on a plan to extirpate Isis - and there are new sanctions on Iran and a strong alliance with Israel. It all comes out in a great rush of action. Oh, and a great appointment to fill that vacant seat on the Supreme Court.

On to the economy: Trump argues that there are 93 million Americans out of the labour force, there are all those people on food stamps, jobs are leaking out of the nation in a rush, national debt is up, economic recovery is slow and there is a great need to restart the economic engine. There must be tax reform to reduce the tax burden on companies ... a "big big cut" and one for the middle class too. There was even a shout out to Harley Davidson, a company that has great products, but that faces nasty foreign tax barriers. Even so, Trump insists he believes in free trade, but it must be fair trade. To set out the case, he quotes Abraham Lincoln on the virtues of protectionism. Foreigners take advantage of us and, along the way, America must also reform immigration with a merit-based point system.

Then it was on to respect for law and order and a sudden segue to Eisenhower and the national highway system, arguing that it is past time for a national rebuild. Then there it was again, that six trillion dollars wasted in the Middle East. (Wait a minute, didn't that begin with a Republican? Never mind.)

A new infrastructure plan was called for and, of course, that it was time to repeal and replace Obamacare for better health care. No more mandated purchase and lower costs instead. All those broken promises, shame on you, proponents of Obamacare. Now there is a need for bipartisanship to save the country from this imploding system. Trump set out his idea for a replacement that would require the coverage of pre-existing conditions, the use of tax credits and health savings accounts for people to buy their plans, the need for states to get the money required to ensure that no one is left out, legal reforms and purchaser freedom to buy medical plans across state lines to bring down costs. (One wonders what the Republican congressional caucus felt about that list of must haves.)

Then it was on to other must haves. From Trump it was the need for accessible child care and paid family leave, clean air and clean water (despite the probable gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency), and the need to rebuild the nation's military and, again, infrastructure. Per Trump, every child deserves a brighter future. There was an obligatory shout out to a rare disease survivor and her father's success in finding a cure. This led to a somewhat jarring segue to a call for cuts in the deliberateness of the food and drug approvals process.

The rush of ideas kept rolling forward. It was on to school choice – a tax credit system for everyone to break the cycle of poverty. Then on to the horrors of the cycle of violence. All those murders. All those police killed. And crime victims. Victims of crime by illegal immigrants. Still more shout outs - this time to victims of illegal immigrants' crimes. (He is becoming an expert at milking someone's suffering in order to hammer home an immigration enforcement proposal.) He is setting up a special office for dealing with crimes committed by those nasty illegal immigrants. Take that, bad hombres.

Right, then on to building up the military so it can win, only win. In Trump's mind, it is necessary to eliminate the defence budget sequester (that limits increases without equivalent tax increases or other spending cuts) and he called for – in his words – one of the largest increases in defence spending in history. And more money for veterans too. Yet another shout out to a widow whose husband, Ryan Owen, a navy seal, was killed in action in Yemen. Trump now owns the grieving widow vote for an eternity.

Then a word on foreign policy: For Trump, American foreign policy must be based on secure ties with allies, such as with NATO (have Secretaries Rex Tillerson, James Mattis and John Kelly had a sharp word with the president?), but the nation's partners still must meet their financial obligations. Trump claims early success crowing that "the money is pouring in". Foreigners must respect our rights too, he adds. The nation should be willing to find new friends wherever they may be. (Tovarish, are you listening in Moscow?) Finally it is on to a standard peroration about everyone being the same people. It is time for big thinking and courage. Trump is channelling Ronald Reagan's folksy charm, or perhaps it’s Bill Pullman playing a president in the film Independence Day.

There is an awkward underbelly for the Trump administration to this Tuesday night effort, of course. There is continuing infighting within the administration between cabinet officials and Trumpian tweets, within the White House staff and the consequent leaks, through Trump's repeated casting of the media as the enemy of the American people, between GOP congressional budget hawks and vague but expansive Trumpian spending plans, and that troublesome, unresolved problem of whether he does, or does not, have some strange, unfathomable connection with Vladimir Putin. And there is even a growing percentage of Americans who have suddenly discovered and embraced the virtues of the Affordable Care Act's provisions. And the GOP's congressional caucus' health care views remain at variance with the vague nostrums in Trump's speech in finding a way to repeal and replace Obamacare.

The Democratic Party's short, terse response came from former Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear. He spoke to Democratic victories in years gone by and offered a down-home-style critique - delivered in shirt sleeves from a table at a local restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky - of the Trump presidency's evisceration of the rules that protect the average person from bank failures and environmental disaster, the importance of the successes of Obamacare, and a sly swipe at Trump's "cabinet of millionaires". Oh, and just by the way, the president's foreign policy plans feature an embrace of a Russia that is simply not the country's friend - and the draconian impacts of Trumpian immigration rules. When the president attacks the courts, the military, the intelligence services, the media and many others, Beshear said that does not enhance the nation's security. Take that, Donald. Not everyone loved this presidential address. DM

Photo: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives iin Washington, U.S., February 28, 2017.  REUTERS/Jim Lo Scalzo

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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