48 million viewers across several stations
What it is: President Trump’s first speech to a joint session of Congress. Like a State of the Union but technically not one.
I normally don’t review special events, but Trump’s joint session speech was unlike sports broadcasts and awards shows and such in that it was easily accessible after its initial airing and not much longer than a regular TV drama (and significantly shorter than two-hour monstrosities like The Bachelor). I didn’t watch it live but was kind of curious about it after seeing the reaction it elicited, certainly more so than I was about The Voice, which was the regular series with the most viewers on the night in question.
Much of the media reaction to Trump’s speech consisted of praise for the “presidential” tone he had supposedly summoned up. CNN’s Van Jones expressed this perspective most vividly, saying of Trump’s pointing out a Navy SEAL widow in the audience, “He became President of the United States in that moment, period,” and warning, “For people who have been hoping that maybe he would remain a divisive cartoon… They should begin to become a little bit worried tonight, because that thing you just saw him do, if he finds a way to do that over and over again, he’s going to be there for eight years.”
This was less than a week before Trump jumped onto Twitter to accuse President Obama of tapping his phones and needle Arnold Schwarzenegger about The Apprentice ratings, so the idea of Trump turning a corner on his demeanor collapsed quickly and predictably. But I wondered if actually watching the speech might’ve affected me the same way it seemingly affected many in the media.
For the first third or so of the address I had no idea how anyone could’ve been impressed by Trump’s performance. “Presidential Trump” obviously runs the risk of being boring relative to “raving, off-the-cuff Trump,” and he seemed pretty uninterested in the whole exercise himself. Check out his facial expression after delivering this soaring, utopian passage:
Dying industries will come roaring back to life. Heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need. Our military will be given the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve. Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our very, very beautiful land. Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and, ultimately, stop. And our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety and opportunity. Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people.
But he did hit his stride eventually, around the point at which he managed a decently funny quip about his meeting with Harley-Davidson executives. (“[T]hey wanted me to ride one and I said, ‘No, thank you.'”) He seemed more engaged once he got into his trademark themes of trade and immigration, and that made him more engaging as a speaker, though I personally still didn’t find any of this speech as compelling as the populist themes he sounded in his inauguration address.
Who really cares, though? The problem with pundits praising Trump for acting presidential isn’t just that Trump is obviously incapable of sticking to that tone; it’s also that his usual un-presidential style is part of his appeal, not a weakness. The fact that he might at any moment attack Rosie O’Donnell or call Mexicans rapists is part of why some people saw him as a departure from D.C. business as usual, and why the media gave him tons of free publicity via campaign coverage. Without that stuff he’s just another old white conservative in a suit, and there’s a reason guys like that got steamrolled in 2016: Most people just don’t like them very much, presidential as they might be.
Anyway, while the joint address as a whole admittedly wasn’t awful, I couldn’t divorce myself from reality enough to be stirred by Trump’s aforementioned shout-out to Carryn Owens, widow of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed during a raid in Yemen. This was an operation which was largely botched in its implementation; led to the killing of at least 25 civilians, including nine children; and yielded little of the valuable intelligence that was supposedly part of the reason it was conducted in the first place. Owens’ father criticized the raid and refused to meet with Trump in its aftermath, and Trump himself tried to pass the buck for the mission’s failures on to the generals under his command.
In this context, watching Congress erupt with thunderous applause not just once but over and over and over, on every beat of Trump’s rhetorical tribute to a man who died in a disaster carried out under Trump’s orders, felt like a dark comedy sketch. The media’s emphasis on the moment’s dignified style rather than its tragic underlying substance was just an extension of the joke. Some commentators noted at the time that the praise Trump received would probably encourage him to use military force more aggressively in the future, and that’s exactly what we now seem to see happening with his impulsive strike on Syria. The one upside of his extreme personal repulsiveness has been the extent to which large numbers of Americans have been spurred to finally get politically engaged in order to make a change, and I like to think we might similarly see people finally resist the idea that they have to fall in line unquestioningly behind any president who decides it’s time to start dropping bombs somewhere. But so far, at least in the mainstream, it doesn’t seem like that’s happening.