Last night, America was treated to an extremely boring episode of the Trump show.
The recycled half-truths, outright falsehoods, and weird snuff-film descriptions of crimes committed by immigrants were to be expected. So was the stale repetition of the case—if you can call it that—for a wall. But the low-energy monotone? The incessant snuffling? The distractingly puffy under eye bags that suggested someone was in desperate need of the antidote? Maybe someone, someday, will make Oval Office addresses great again. But it won’t be Donald Trump.
It would be easy to pretend this primetime national embarrassment never occurred. But Trump’s inability to say anything new is a symptom of a serious problem. Our president appears to have run out of whatever limited intellectual capital he brought with him to Washington. He’s the proverbial old dog incapable of learning new tricks. And while that may hurt him politically in the short run, in the long run, we all pay the price.
Thirteen years ago, Stephen Colbert delivered the perfect one-liner at George W. Bush’s expense. “He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday – no matter what happened Tuesday.” Yet President Bush’s stubborn insistence on clinging to failing strategies has nothing on President Trump’s. Tuesday night’s Oval Office address contained only the briefest of mentions of a government shutdown. With that one exception, you’d be forgiven for thinking the president doesn’t realize 800,000 federal workers aren’t getting paid.
Or that we just had a campaign that featured this exact same set of arguments, only more frequently and with more enthusiasm, and the president’s side lost. Or that a ferociously anti-immigrant State of the Union Address didn’t increase public support for a border wall. Or that a ferociously anti-immigrant 2019 address to Congress didn’t increase public support for a border wall. Or that a ferociously anti-immigrant Inaugural Address didn’t increase public support for a border wall.
If demonizing immigrants and blaming Democrats was going to work, it would have worked by now. But it hasn’t. And it won’t. President Trump is like the football coach who, going into the second half down by 20, remains determined to establish the run.
So why won’t he try a new approach? The answer is sadly obvious. He can’t. For starters, he’s backed himself into a rhetorical corner. His build-the-wall speeches have little basis in reality, which is why most Americans remain unconvinced by them. But enough Americans are convinced by them that there’s no way for President Trump to pivot.
A more dexterous politician might be able to bring his base along with him as he switches to plan B. But dexterity is not the Donald’s forte.
The great irony is that President Trump claims – and perhaps even thinks – that he has a snake-charmer’s hold over his supporters. He famously boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and they wouldn’t care. Yet apparently the president’s confidence, which encompasses murder, does not extend to backing down from a campaign promise, even when he has very good policy and political reasons to do so. To his credit, I guess, Trump briefly tried to assert his independence, act like a sensible leader, and fund the government without a wall. But then Ann Coulter and Fox and Friends got mad at him and he meekly fell in line. President Trump’s speech was repetitive, in part, because his own voters won’t allow him to say something new.
It’s also repetitive because the real crisis facing America, a government shutdown with no end in sight, doesn’t really interest President Trump. The British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously (and perhaps apocryphally) replied, when asked what he most feared, “Events, dear boy, events.” But this only holds true if politicians recognize urgency when they see it. President Trump, frighteningly, does not. Asking him to think through a new issues is like asking Right Said Fred to come up with new original hits. He has his setlist. It’s not going to change.
Above all, and most disturbingly, what we saw last night was a person who’s empathy is in very limited supply. If you’ve been murdered by an immigrant, preferably an undocumented immigrant, President Trump will mutter “So sad, so sad,” after sharing your story. But if you’ve been gunned down in a mass shooting; or driven to suicide by an inept response to a hurricane, or left to die in the custody of Border Patrol, the president just doesn’t seem to care about you.
What is true for lives is equally true for livelihoods. Most economists don’t think America loses jobs due to immigration, yet President Trump still managed to lament those lost jobs in his big speech. But how about the very real TSA agents working without pay? Or the federal workers wondering how they’ll pay their February rent? Or the contractors who will never make up their lost wages, even after the government reopens? The president did not say even a single world about them.
That’s remarkable. And it’s part of a pattern. To a truly unprecedented degree, President Trump seems not to care about, or even notice, a vast number of the people he has sworn an oath to serve. This helps explain his low approval numbers. But until he’s no longer in office, it also puts us all at risk.
Which is the really interesting, and really frightening, lesson we learned from Donald Trump’s speech last night. His team included the mistruths. They included the fear mongering. They included the pandering to his base. But in a setting where the president was in theory addressing all of “My fellow Americans,” what they left out was us.