Tonight, President Donald Trump will address a joint session of Congress in the biggest speech so far in his presidency. Team Trump has promised that this speech will be a departure from his normal holy trinity of fear, ego and spite and instead project an optimistic vision of the country. Pundits have spent the day cooing with excitement over how maybe the president will sound nicer. It’s what voters want. People are tired of the division. Time for an optimistic, warm, happy Trump. Won’t that be nice?
On a practical level, Trump’s thespian turn as a sudden optimist will change absolutely nothing.
With five weeks of being president under his belt, Donald Trump has assured Americans that his administration is behaving like a “finely-tuned machine.” To the public, it plays more like an out-of-tune piano.
Every major poll shows that Trump’s popularity with voters is under water. There was the gloomy “American Carnage” inaugural address. His marquee campaign promise, a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S.,” found itself on the losing end of a court battle within days of its inception, which must have been humiliating for a person who promised we’d win so much we’d get tired of winning. There was the bizarre press conference before a loud golden curtain that nearly matched the loudness of his golden hair. The dossier about the golden showers, and ongoing speculation about his administration’s indebtedness to Russia. The mounting cost of the Trump family’s frequent vacations. The leader of the free world seems to not know many things that he did not learn from a television. And, of course, the tweeting.
His people—the best people, if you ask Trump—haven’t fared well, either. Kellyanne Conway has seized every opportunity to appear inept on national television. Sean Spicer is literally a joke. Stephens Miller and Bannon appear to have spent the last five weeks auditioning to play ghouls in a live-action Disney film. The president’s cabinet has functioned like a cage full of flighty birds, each beating its own wings, squawking its own squawk, and caring little for fashioning any harmony from the cacophony.
Through it all, Trump has made it clear that he hates his job. It’s not fun to watch a person hate their job. But an optimistic makeover is just packaging.
“Optimism” doesn’t change the fact that Trump still plans on redrafting an executive order specifically targeting one religious group. Smiles don’t make the the promised border wall less of a stupid idea. Grandfatherly crinkles may appear at the corners of President Trump’s eyes as he reads his speech, but that doesn’t change the fact that his budget screws millennials. A gentle chuckle doesn’t change the fact that the President is a climate science denier. Stern but kind finger-wags at the entities responsible for threatening Jewish community centers around the country won’t change the fact that David Duke is one of our President’s biggest fans.
Trump’s entire career has been built on artifice—embodying the idea of wealth, selling his name to other companies’ projects, playing a boss on TV. His hair, his wives, his large oily sons in their dangling ties, his gilded apartment. At one inauguration ball, Trump’s team hired a baker to make a cake that looked exactly like a cake a different baker made for Barack Obama’s inauguration, except his cake was made of styrofoam. He chooses staffers and confidants based on looks and presence, as though he’s casting a reality TV show about mostly unattractive people who hate each other. He’s gone to court over keeping the public from knowing how rich he actually isn’t. None of it is what really lies beneath.
Tonight’s speech is more artifice. When the president mounts the podium, resplendent with optimism like a cantaloupe Ronald Reagan, he’ll still be the same person who convinced millions to take to the streets in protest in recent months. He will curl back his lips and display his veneers, in the way a nice person might. He will read his prepared remarks as he reads all prepared remarks, like they’re a bedtime story he is reading to a child for the first time, or a birthday card from his secretary, pausing to look up and repeat the lines he likes. He will not be a different person. He will not have different advisors. He will not have different ideas. A sudden optimist turn from Donald Trump should only satisfy the sort of person who, if they were being stabbed in the ribs, would feel a lot better if their assailant were belting out happy show tunes. Optimism doesn’t change a damn thing.
Unless tonight’s speech presents a drastic change in actual policy, tonight’s Trump makeover amounts to little more than polishing a turd.