Tuesday night proved once again the biggest impediment to Trumpism is none other than Donald Trump.
The proof was in the negative: The president’s first address to a joint session of Congress was most striking for its departure from so much of his usual rhetoric, and consequently how well it was received. The substance was pretty much the same as what we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Trump: Build the wall, rebuild our infrastructure, enforce our immigration laws, promote law and order domestically, cut taxes, make trade more “fair,” destroy ISIS but otherwise take a step back from the world stage, put people back to work.
What was different was the style. There were no cheap shots at opponents, no shots at the media. There was very little bragging, replaced by calls for unity. The speech was most reminiscent of his brief remarks shortly after the election was called. When he does this, he catches people off-guard — to his benefit. (If you had Trump saying the words “Black History Month” before “Make America Great Again,” please email me your Powerball picks.)
This is not to say everyone — on the left or the right — will have agreed with Trump. There was orthodoxy as well as heresy for conservatives in particular. But his delivery was far more “presidential,” as most people understand the term, than a lot of what we’ve seen from him. It was the kind of speech that can win him allies rather than enemies.
Some people seem to think the paeans to being “presidential” are a distraction, or even a ruse to get Trump to stop being Trump. I don’t even want Trump to get his way on every issue, but I have to think the best way for Trump to fulfill his agenda would be to sound, stylistically, a bit more like a conventional politician.
Trump at his best, and Tuesday night was a pretty good example of that, puts people off-balance just enough to keep them from uniting against him. Trump at his worst gives people an excuse to oppose him.
There is reason to believe Trump is finally settling into the job. The past week or so has been much calmer and more normal than the first few weeks of his presidency. The key for him will be maintaining that.
Don’t confuse calm and normalcy for agreement. President Obama pushed a lot of policies that a lot of people found extremely disagreeable, but he found some success because he pursued them in a mostly conventional manner. Trump at this point need not worry about losing his most ardent supporters by changing his tone. But he very much has to worry about not having enough support to accomplish his agenda if he doesn’t.
One way Trump probably won’t change: He will always be the kind of executive who outlines aspirations in broad terms, leaves it to others to fill in the details, and then tries to sell whatever they produce. While there were precious few specifics in his speech, there was much reiteration of what he wants in broad terms.
His ability to sell his administration’s results will depend in large part on whether people are willing to keep listening to him. He’s shown he can go about his business in two very different ways. The way he chose with Tuesday night’s speech is more likely to bring him success.