I learned a few things while covering the long grind that was the Candidate Trump phenomenon. “Don’t drink whiskey during debates” proved to be an important if elusive maxim. “You are never off-duty” became an inescapable truth once the 3 am tweetstorms turned into a thing. “If his lips are moving, he’s lying” comes in handy on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. By far and away, however, the most important axiom of all consistently proved to be the most difficult to obey: “Don’t take the bait.”
Donald Trump is all bait. It is the essence of his existence, his governing principle. Herds of stray cats follow him around because he smells like a bag of musty tuna. He is one of those creepy deep-sea monster fish, all eyes and teeth and dangled glowing lure. Every tweet is a ladle of chum tossed into the water. It takes a special kind of self-control to lay off, but you have to if you want to keep everyone’s eyes fixed on what matters, and not on whatever is scrolling across the careening Times Square ticker-tape screen that passes for his mind.
President Trump delivered maybe the performance of his political life before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, and the entire thing was positively surreal. You had Mike Pence and Paul Ryan standing together in their positions of honor above the president’s podium wearing exactly, precisely the same suit, shirt and blue ties. They looked for all the world like Thing 1 and Thing 2 from The Cat in the Hat. Beyond that was the breathtaking finality of the theatrics: The Sargent-at-Arms bellowed, “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States,” and out came Trump. It wasn’t a mistake; he didn’t wander through the wrong door. Here was the president, resplendent in his orangeness, and hats over the windmill. Now it’s real.
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The performance itself was the bait this time, and many in the media found it tempting on the lure. Is this the new Trump? Has he turned a corner? Is everything different and better now? Can I come out from under the bed and stop stocking canned goods? James Pindell of The Boston Globe sure seemed to think so: “In many ways, it was the long-awaited pivot that Trump has always promised. This was unlike any other speech we have seen from Trump: he was disciplined, didn’t veer much at all from the script and hit his marks. Trump expressed optimistic platitudes such as, ‘The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us,’ and, ‘From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears.'”
Van Jones, one of Trump’s most caustic critics, was even more ebullient in his praise on CNN. Describing Trump’s praise for a fallen SEAL, Jones said, “There are a lot of people who have a lot of reason to be frustrated with him, to be fearful of him. But that was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period. And he did something extraordinary. And for people who have been hoping that he would become unifying, hoping that he might find some way to become presidential, they should be happy with that moment. Now, there was a lot that he said in that speech that was counterfactual, that was not right, that I oppose and will oppose. But he did something tonight that you cannot take away from him. He became president of the United States.”
Not everyone was impressed. “I did not hear President Trump say one word, not one word, about the need to combat climate change, the greatest environmental threat facing our planet,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders in a video rebuttal. “Do we add another $80-plus billion to the Pentagon, or do we allow every qualified young American the ability to go to college tuition-free at a public college or university and reduce student debt? Tonight, President Trump once again made it clear he plans on working with Republicans in Congress who want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, throw 20 million Americans off of health insurance, privatize Medicare, make massive cuts in Medicaid, raise the cost of prescription drugs to seniors, eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, while at the same time, he wants to give another massive tax break to the wealthiest Americans.”
Two takeaways from Tuesday night, both of which are potentially of a single piece: infrastructure and immigration. President Trump proposed a truly massive $1 trillion infrastructure improvements package. The problem with the passage of such a large piece of legislation, as ever, is your average Republican congressperson, who will like as not run up a tree and hide when confronted with such a stupendous spending bill. Under most circumstances it’s a dead stick, and has been for a while now.
Before the speech, Trump huddled with some news anchors and let it drop that he is open to a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants. In this, he sounded a whole lot like Ted Kennedy a dozen years ago, who along with John McCain came up with an immigration plan that opened a pathway to citizenship for millions of people. During the speech itself, though, he made no mention of such a path and instead announced that he has ordered Homeland Security to create a new agency to publish a weekly list of all crimes committed by immigrants. Make no mistake: If he returns to the idea of a path to citizenship, the GOP base will flip out over this in truly incandescent fashion. “NO AMNESTY,” they will howl, and it will be taken as a betrayal of everything Trump stood for during his campaign.
How to square this circle? Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have a whole raft of right-wing bills they’re just dying to deploy. Cuts to Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, a rollback of food assistance programs, massive corporate tax cuts, wide-ranging assaults on reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ equality, along with any number of Jesus Uber Alles laws that will technically make it illegal for trans people to go to the bathroom.
Not one of the items on the right’s wish list sees the light of legal day without Donald Trump’s signature, and there’s the bait. Give me my infrastructure bill, he can say, and you can go have a ball turning the country into A Handmaid’s Tale at your pleasure. It’s pretty safe to say the GOP hard-liners in Congress will go along for the ride if it gets them even half of what they want.
But hey, who knows? It was just one speech. For all we know, the president and his administration will revert back to full clown status again before the daylight fades … but there was a rumble for a minute there on Tuesday night that should not be ignored. If these people actually get organized enough to collaborate, we’ll be on a highway to Hell, eight lanes wide and no potholes. Ryan, McConnell and the far right will be able to accomplish every nightmare priority on their list while Trump can point to a couple of big bills and strut his way toward the authoritarian Islamophobic regime Steve Bannon has been dreaming of.