January 9, 2019 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Trump’s Address Made No Sense
Maybe the best explanation is the simplest. The president is a moron.
I don’t mind it when people call the president a moron, but I tend to avoid it. It’s not because I’m nice. It’s because I see more value in analyzing words and deeds. But after last night’s address, a reductive theory might best explain complex phenomena.
Perhaps Donald Trump really is a moron.
The president took nine minutes of valuable air time last night to explain why a border wall was necessary to national security. He said the Democrats were standing in the way, and that they could end the suffering caused by the 18-day shutdown of the government if they would agree to spending more than $5 billion on a wall.
Most of it was verifiable nonsense, but that’s not what I mean when I say the Oval Office address didn’t make sense. What was the point? What did Trump achieve? I don’t know if puzzling through these questions is worth it, but let’s give it a shot.
First bear in mind that presidential addresses have limited utility, meaning that they are not typically persuasive, one way or another. What they do accomplish, however, is affirmation. They affirm what people already believe to be true about a president. Given this president has never been popular, last night’s televised address, in all its Aryan glory, probably affirmed every reason why he’s never been popular.
Even Trump knew it wouldn’t much matter. The Times reported Tuesday that, during a luncheon with television news anchors, the president said he thought the address was pointless. Same for his Thursday trip to the border. His staff put him up to both. “It’s not going to change a damn thing, but I’m still doing it,” he said.
Why? The obvious reason is the high road. That’s what presidents do when negotiations stall. They take their case to the American people directly in the hope that public opinion will bend the other side to his advantage. But given that Trump is unpopular, that the border wall is unpopular, and that last night’s address likely deepened the impression that he’s unpopular, the high road gambit failed to work.
And anyway, the target audience for last night’s televised address was not a broad cross-section of the American electorate. It was the GOP base, especially the right-wing media pundits who speak for and influence that base, people who don’t require the president going on prime-time TV to say the Democrats are no good very bad.
Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and others—Trump needs these right-wingers to inflame the party’s deadenders in order to maintain pressure on wavering Republicans. The longer the shutdown, the more Senate Republicans sweat. The US Chamber of Commerce demanded reopening the government. But if the GOP undercuts Trump, Lindsey Graham said, “that’s the end of his presidency.”
If the establishment Republicans turn on this president, it will send a deadly signal to every single GOP voter, and that signal will be this: Trump is weak. Once the fascist base of the GOP sniffs out weakness, that could mean the end times are a-coming. (For what it’s worth, Coulter has predicted that Trump “will fold” to the Democrats’ demands. She said Sunday that he’s acting like he wants to be impeached.)
A lot was riding on last night’s address, but Trump didn’t show his target audience what they most wanted to see: a Republican president exhibiting dominance over the country, especially over those refusing to give him what he wants. He didn’t claim emergency powers granted to presidents during national crises. He therefore lost a chance to show he’s tough. (He would have triggered an immediate legal challenge, because this is not an emergency, as well as a political crisis, but that’s another matter.)
I argued yesterday that invoking national emergency powers would be Trump’s way of getting out of the self-made crisis over the government shutdown. He could cave while looking tough. I said that if Ann Coulter & Co. can “accept gestures of dominance instead of actual dominance, Trump will have gone a long way toward discouraging an internal challenge to his incumbency even if he never gets a border wall.”
But he didn’t, and now I’m scratching my head. Maybe I was overthinking things. Maybe I’m attributing to political calculation what’s best attributed to idiocy. After all, former members of his administration have said Trump is a moron. After all, he’d offer the Democrats something if he really wanted a wall. (Instead, he’s ready to fight while ransoming the government.) Then there’s the people he surrounds himself with.
Bloomberg reported that aides told Trump he could take his case for emergency powers to the Supreme Court. If the court failed, they said, Trump could tell his base that the court is to blame for the fact that there’s no wall. I could try untangling how problematic this all is, but the simplest response is to say that it’s dumb.
Past shutdowns had a kind of internal logic, despite being destructive and maddening. But this time, I’m stumped. Maybe the president isn’t the only moron!
Roll Call just reported that Trump is still threatening to invoke emergency powers.
President Donald Trump appeared Wednesday to warn he might declare a national emergency at the southern border to access funding for his proposed border wall, a move that would take the wall out of frozen negotiations to end the partial government shutdown.
“We’re all working together. I really believe the Democrats and the Republicans are working together,” Trump said during a bill-signing event in the Oval Office, according to a pool report.
“Otherwise we’ll go about it in a different manner,” he added. “I don’t think we’ll have to do that, but you never know.”
Me and Ian Masters
I was on his show Monday. It’s called Background Briefing. Have a listen.
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The Editorial Board
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.