President Donald Trump‘s first speech to a joint session of Congress will be remembered for startling contrasts and unmistakable insincerity.
While many in the United States will view this speech as a sign of renewed discipline on the part of President Trump he has still left much of the country – and the world – wondering how he will govern when he gets out of campaign mode.
The most significant contrast to what the world has heard before in Trump’s address was rhetorical. He didn’t attack former-President Barack Obama. He didn’t brag about winning the 2016 election. He didn’t attack the American press, nor did he dwell on various perceived personal slights.
Gone were Trump’s dark and disturbing references to a dying US, to carnage in the streets, and to an almost post-apocalyptic notion of this nation that permeated his inauguration speech.
Instead, this address to Congress was boilerplate Republican campaign rhetoric. He promised to improve American schools, protect the borders, bring back jobs, and touted his accomplishments after a month in office. It was, for all practical purposes, a campaign speech, which in and of itself isn’t a problem.
However, we have only heard campaign speeches from Donald Trump, he has yet to deliver the kind of meaty policy-oriented, or even ideological, speech that gives Americans and the world an idea as to what kind of country he seeks to create, not just correct. It is not clear how he will pay for many of the goals he lays out.
The unprecedented rhetorical discipline of this speech also makes it difficult to take sincerely, for those who have paid attention to the rise of Trump’s presidency.
While the White House delivered notes prior to the speech stating the president’s goal was to unify the country, those attempts mostly fell flat. He began his address talking about Black History month in the US, as well as well as the recent rise in anti-Semitic vandalism and shootings of minorities and immigrants by American-born white people.
While speaking on these issues is important, most of these attacks have been going on for weeks and Trump never said anything about them. When asked about anti-Semitism in a press conference, he became hostile. He has tweeted about White House leaks and spoken about Obama, but said nothing about white American violence against minorities in the US.
What Trump truly cares about, he will tweet, so his words about unity and diversity sounded forced and perfunctory, not filled with the kind of passion or agency that infuses almost any other time he communicates with the public.
Donald Trump is a master of speaking off the cuff, whether he is witty or stumbling, he prides himself on communicating with his heart and feeding off the energy of the crowd. When he operates from a prepared speech, as he did on Tuesday night, it comes off as wooden and insincere. All presidents have speech writers, but unlike Obama – or George W Bush or Bill Clinton or even back to Ronald Reagan – these writers have not mastered the art of having a prepared speech actually sound like it came from the mind of the president.
While he warmed up near the end, when discussing fallen US troops, the majority of the speech lacked any of the passion that won Trump the presidency, let alone help him to convince Congress to go along with his budget.
Like many of the scandals that plague this early administration, we have just scratched the surface of Donald Trump.
This was his first speech, he may get better as time goes on, or he may maintain a strange contrast between his spontaneous speaking and what he says during prepared talks. Only time will tell.
What we do know now is that Trump is capable of delivering a disciplined address to a joint session of Congress. If this is how low the standards for political communication have dropped in the US after only five weeks in office, one can only wonder how far down things may go once he is fully comfortable in power.
Jason Johnson is an American professor of political science and communications