The Banality of Nationalism

Trump, So Presidential You Won’t Believe It, Delivers a Kinder, Gentler Bannonism

The president didn’t change his promises, but he did find a very different way to describe them.

03.01.17 6:13 AM ET

The women wore white; the president wore black. He wanted unity. They wanted justice. It turned out to be a shotgun wedding.

President Donald Trump’s tone for his first address to a joint session of Congress was eloquent and, daresay, presidential. He began by acknowledging Black History Month and condemning anti-Semitic vandalism and bomb threats and even, without getting into the specifics, “last week’s shooting in Kansas City” in which a man shot two Indian Americans he thought were Iranians. This was a welcome surprise to observers who felt Trump’s inaugural speech, and subsequent press conferences, were too hostile, braggadocious, and contentious.

Like most addresses before a joint session of Congress, Trump offered up a laundry list of boasts and proposals. The overarching theme remained the political policies associated with Trumpism, but packaged in a shiny new wrapper.

Much of the opposition to Trump’s policy proposals has been exacerbated by his needlessly provocative rhetoric and social-media outbursts. Tonight, he stuck with the campaign promises he made to his voters—but he finally packaged them in a manner that is much more palatable and persuasive to the rest of America.

The core of President Trump’s address never deviated from his populist and nationalist message, even going as far as invoking President Abraham Lincoln to buttress his protectionist economic message.

He likewise invoked a Republican icon to baptize his trillion-dollar infrastructure plan: “Another Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, initiated the last truly great national infrastructure program―the building of the Interstate Highway System. The time has come for a new program of national rebuilding.”

He occasionally sounded grandiose. “Every problem can be solved,” he promised—a line that brings to mind Barack Obama’s quixotic promise about oceans receding.

Although he never deviated from his populist worldview, he did a better job of sprinkling in compassionate conservatism. More than Trump normally does, he made several references to the Almighty. “We all bleed the same blood. We all salute the same flag. And we are all made by the same God,” he said.

President Trump also asked for our help—something he’s not always comfortable doing. “I am asking all citizens to embrace this renewal of the American spirit. I am asking all members of Congress to join me in dreaming big and bold and daring things for our country,” he said.

It was Bannon-ism with a much kinder tone―one that was presidential to the point of boredom. It was the banality of nationalism.

Past Trump speeches read like they were written by committee; they were 90 percent hardline Bannon/Miller nationalism, with random paragraphs stuck in haphazardly to soften the narrative. No matter what you think of Trumpism, this was a coherent and effective speech that put a softer sheen on those same ideas.

Love him or hate him, the president has laid out his agenda and now must deliver on it to the American people. Trump will have to learn that it will take more than just Twitter to make America great again. It will take working with Congress, listening to those he disagrees with, and finding the common ground he preached about from the pulpit tonight at the capitol.