Well, at least he didn't talk about "American carnage."
In his first address to a joint session of Congress last night, President Donald Trump cleared the bar he had set for himself in his inaugural address the month before, but that bar was pretty low. And, despite the many commentaries that worked primarily from a comparison with the inaugural address, and fund last night's offering a kind of reprieve or pivot, I was horrified by last night's address not least because by dialing back the dystopian language, it might prove more effective. Demagoguery is scarier when it is effective than when its aggressiveness turns people off.
And, yes, there was plenty of demagoguery. President Trump assigned four of the coveted seats in the First Lady's box to those who had lost a loved one to violence perpetrated by an undocumented immigrant. Of course, we all feel for these families and their loss. But, Trump's goal was not empathy, it was to paint the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country as dangerous, potential murderers. The emotional impact of these victims cannot be allowed to obscure the absence of any data indicating that undocumented immigrants are particularly dangerous.
The president suggested he was open to some kind of comprehensive immigration bill. Do not take that bait. The bill passed by the gang of eight four years ago was bad enough, and that was with a Democratic president in the White House. That bill, you will recall, was never permitted a vote in the House because of Republican opposition. Does anyone think we will get a more humane bill now?
Mr. Trump proposed switching to a merit-based immigration system. "It is a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially," the president said. I suppose economic viability is one measure of "merit" but I am more concerned that our immigration system be reworked so that its primary goal is uniting families. Allowing parents to be with their children, wives with their husbands, grandparents with their grandkids, that counts as merit in my book as much as the ability to land a job in Silicon Valley. There are values at stake here and it will be interesting to see if the USCCB takes up the defense of those values or continues to pussyfoot around with the Trump team.
On healthcare, President Trump said, "Mandating every American to buy government-approved health insurance was never the right solution for America." And, then he said, "[W]e should ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage." Okay? What is to prevent someone, and we are mostly talking young people here, from waiting until they are sick to get coverage? Does anyone think the insurance companies will agree to a plan that has no mandate but retains that proscription against denial of coverage to those with pre-existing conditions?
The president said, "The time for trivial fights is behind us." Setting aside the irony that this sentiment was expressed by the most thin-skinned man in public life in our nation's history, the Democrats need to point out that fighting to protect health care for millions of our fellow Americans is not a trivial fight. Defending undocumented immigrants who have done nothing wrong other than overstay a visa or cross the border without documentation is not a trivial fight. Protecting our environment from the rampages of the extraction industry is not a trivial fight. Championing the integrity of American elections, free from the interference of Russian meddling, is not a trivial fight.
In his conclusion last night, the president said, "From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears," but who has done more to add to that burden than Trump himself? Yes, when you compare last night's speech with Trump's inaugural address we see what Dan Balz calls the president's "split political personality." But this is not new. Every president has to balance the desires of his or her base with the need to reach out beyond the base to the center of the electorate and, indeed, to the opposition party if you want to get certain things accomplished.
What is new is the degree to which this president stokes fear in order to accomplish his political ambitions. What is new is the extent to which he dismisses opposition as trivial, wagging his finger at Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi several times during the speech. What is new is a president who gets high marks for sticking to his teleprompter. New and dangerous.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at The Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]