It is difficult to believe that Donald Trump has only been President for forty days. Since he took office in January, almost every day seems to have been filled with drama and controversy, fueled by the new commander-in-chief’s erratic tweets, press conferences and policy announcements. The relative quietness of this week has therefore been unusual; Trump has refrained from slamming his opponents and the ‘fake news’ of the mainstream media for several days now, and no White House aides have appeared in public to invent a massacre or lie about crowd sizes. All in all, this has been a remarkably normal week – could this be the start of a pivot towards a more professional and presidential stance?
This absence of the usual Trumpian bombast was on full display on Tuesday night, as the President addressed a joint session of Congress. This occasion is one of the most traditional staples of American political theatre, an annual event whereby partisan differences are put aside as members of Congress welcome the incumbent President to the Capitol, yet if there is one thing we have learned from the past two years it is that Donald Trump does not have much time for convention. Likewise, some Democrats chose to make their disapproval known, with ranks of female members of Congress wearing white in honour of the suffragette movement and in protest against the sexism of the President. It has been little more than a month since Trump delivered his remarkable inauguration address, a speech in which he railed against the amassed political establishment, and Tuesday night was expected to bring more of the same as Trump came face-to-face with that same political elite.
Instead, President Trump came to Congress offering an olive branch, delivering a measured address which could have come from any of his predecessors. Promising ‘a new chapter of American greatness,’ the President adopted a more policy-oriented approach than was ever seen on the campaign trail, laying out plans for new infrastructure spending, tax reform and an alternative to Obamacare. Admittedly, he lambasted the legacy that he has inherited from his predecessor, but he did not call out President Obama or any other politician by name. Instead he appealed for unity, calling for Democrats and Republicans to work together in the national interest whilst calling for an end to ‘pure unadulterated division’ and ‘trivial fights.’
It cannot be denied that this was a very different tone to the one we have all come to expect from Donald Trump. Gone were the personal insults, the bizarre theatrics and the populist rabble-rousing; the only offensive part of this speech was Trump’s robotic speaking style, a stark reminder of what an appalling orator this President is when confined to a teleprompter. There were even some touching moments – Trump paid tribute to a young disabled woman in the gallery who suffers from a rare disease, and in perhaps the most notable moment of the speech he acknowledged the widow of a Navy SEAL killed in action in Yemen, prompting a sustained standing ovation that lasted for over two minutes. In that moment, it was easier to see Trump taking on a unifying ‘father of the nation’ persona in the event of a national tragedy, something which had previously seemed so difficult to imagine, and even the liberal commentator Van Jones, one of the President’s fiercest critics, claimed that this was the moment when he ceased to be ‘a divisive cartoon’ and instead ‘became the President of the United States.’
Van Jones is right to state that Donald Trump sounded presidential for the first time on Tuesday, but a change in tone in one scripted speech does not a President make. In the pre-Trump era, it was generally expected that the Leader of the Free World would be able to deliver a speech to Congress without being petty, vindictive or insulting, and so the fact that everyone is so surprised at Trump’s subdued tone is a pretty damning verdict, again highlighting the fact that this man does not have the temperament to sit in the Oval Office. Trump called for an end to ‘trivial fights’, yet he has spent the entirety of his first month in office pursuing this kind of petty conflict, from declaring the news media to be the ‘enemy of the people’ to accusing the Democrats of rigging the vote to elect a new DNC Chairman. It will take more than a few words to heal the bitter partisanship that rules Washington, particularly when the President himself has previously shown little appetite for working constructively with his political opponents.
Similarly, the big moment of the speech – Trump’s tribute to the widow of a Navy SEAL – was laudable, but one should not be surprised when a President acts in such a way. Honouring the military comes with the role of commander-in-chief, and it would have been nice if Trump had realised this on the campaign trail before he slandered a Gold Star family and claimed that John McCain was not a hero because he was a PoW during the Vietnam War. Nothing that Donald Trump says or does can erase his record of unpleasant and vulgar comments, and one speech is not enough to transform him into a figure capable of unifying the country. The coming days and weeks will prove whether this new tone, coupled with the recent absence of abusive tweets, is to be a permanent fixture that characterises the Trump administration from this point forward.