Donald Trump
Credit: Michael Vadon/Flickr

President Trump’s staff is getting savvier with the construction of his speeches. The substance of his first address to a joint session of Congress was much the same as his demagogic campaign stump speeches. He portrayed an America with rampant crime largely committed by members of Mexican drug cartels who are pouring in through unprotected open borders. America will build a “great, great wall” (though no mention this time of Mexico paying for it). His America is disrespected abroad, yet has a “silent majority” at home that has been criminally neglected by globalists. Terrorism is a foreign, specifically Muslim, phenomenon, therefore we should not be admitting Muslims into his America. His America has been screwed by trade deals and should protect its own industries from foreign competition (but also somehow be allowed to sell freely abroad.) Trump performed his usual trick of dishonestly spinning a nightmarish yarn while offering a fabulous relief from it, which was apparently enough for television pundits to deem it an “optimistic” speech. The only thing conspicuously missing was the personal pronoun. Recycled bipartisan platitudes replaced “I alone can fix it” in most places, and Trump made sure to begin with a condemnation of the ransacking of Jewish cemeteries, the bomb threats toward Jewish Community Centers, and the recent murder in Kansas City (of an Indian engineer by a white nationalist who mistook him to be a Muslim—a small detail that Trump did not mention), which a decent-minded president would have responded to immediately.

The mainstream reaction to Trump’s meager salute to decency was predictable and wrongheaded. “This was probably, without a doubt, one of his best speeches,” Anderson Cooper said. Referring to when Trump honored the wife of a Navy SEAL who was killed last month in Yemen, erstwhile Trump critic Van Jones gushed, “[Trump] became President of the United States in that moment. Period.” Brit Hume believed Trump “struck the balance as well as I’ve ever seen it struck.” Headlines in the New York Times and The Atlantic referred to a different, softer “tone” and a precisely timed “sobriety.” The Washington Post’s headline even trotted out the word “presidential.” An overeager New York Times Politics section went so far as to tweet that Trump stuck to “GOP orthodoxy.” (Paul Ryan and Republican congresspeople standing up and applauding things they oppose, like economic protectionism and paid family leave, in front of cameras does not an “orthodoxy” make.)

You had to go into the Opinion sections, not the ostensibly objective news sections, to find any honest assessment of the speech. The Washington Post’s editorial board got it mostly right, saying “the sunny tone and a laudable condemnation of recent attacks on minorities soon gave way to the same dark and false vision of the country featured in the president’s grim inaugural address.” I would say the actual content of Trump’s speech negated any notion of conciliation, much less a pivot towards moderation.

This hasty normalization of Trump’s vision reveals just how deeply uncomfortable our press is in its rediscovered role as a critically-minded adversary to power. Getting journalists to go along with the creation of Trump’s America appears to be a simulacrum of the man himself—it’s merely a matter of the wrapping in which it’s presented.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at