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It Takes Appallingly Low Standards to Consider Trump’s Speech a Win, but That’s Not Stopping Anyone

This is not normal.


Last night, Donald Trump gave his first speech to Congress (in the first year, it’s not called the State of the Union, but that’s effectively its purpose), and if you were wondering how low the bar had been set for what he needed to do to receive praise, we now have the answer. The speech is being heralded by many as being “presidential,” which should be the baseline default for a President’s speech to Congress, no? But it seems like what that means here breaks down to just a few things:

—He used his “inside voice.”

—He read the words on his teleprompter rather than spiraling out into his usual tangential rants.

—He mentioned specific policy issues (if not actual proposals), like immigration reform and healthcare.

So, it appears he met the bare minimum for getting a thumbs up, both from a large swath of the media as well as viewers. But what Trump presented last night shouldn’t be nearly enough, because in his hour-long speech, he mentioned a number of issues he’s been bringing up since his early campaign (ISIS, the wall, drugs, etc.), but “mentioning” is pretty much the extent of what we got.

And beyond just mere lip service, Trump is continuing his established history of not caring one bit about fact-checking. And why would he? He ran a campaign on contradicting himself and exaggerating (when not just straight-up fabricating) facts and statistics, and he won. Why would he stop now?

Even more disturbingly, as we’ve seen from Trump time and time again, much of his fact fabrication is based in fear mongering. He says the “vast majority” of terrorists are foreigners. (They’re not.) His claim that 94 million Americans are unemployed is a grossly misleading twisting of actual numbers. Also misleading were his links between immigration, crime, drugs, as well as the cost of immigration on American taxpayers.

All of these falsehoods and exaggerations serve to instill a sense of fear and a promise that nationalism and xenophobic practices will fix America’s problems. The fact that he didn’t raise his voice or ramble about ratings doesn’t change that.

Whether Trump is failing upward or has been deliberately playing the fool to lower our expectations, the “presidential” bar is now set so low that saying words strung together in their proper order in a tone that doesn’t grate our ears is enough to get us to ignore how little those words actually amount to.

And beyond even the speech itself, Trump and his administration make great use of our sub-basement-level expectations. Because while we’re praising him for caring so much about the safety of Americans in the face of Big Terrorism, Trump is merely playing the publicity game. Remember how much time he spent convincing us that the only way for his travel ban to work was if it was a quickly-implemented surprise? He’s now taking his time planning the reworked ban so that the backlash doesn’t eat into the positive publicity from his speech.

How exactly do good reviews of a speech change that–you know, unless we’re willing to admit that perception of safety is more important to Trump and many of his supporters than actual safety?

And why is it that so many of the outlets praising him for addressing American crime are ignoring the news that the Justice Department is going to stop investigating misconduct and racism coming out of police precincts?

This seems like something that should be widely criticized, or at least reported, but perhaps the press is too busy cutting Trump a whole lot of slack after he deigned to acknowledge the existence of black communities.

Even the two moments from Trump’s speech that are being heralded as the most “presidential” deserve deep scrutiny. The first moment was when he began his speech by denouncing recent acts of anti-Semitism and hate crimes, and the second was when he brought attention to Carryn Owens, the widow of Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL who did in the recent attack on Yemen.

The first moment may have been symbolically important, but as we discussed yesterday, is not enough on its own. If Trump retreats back to silence as bomb threats and violence and vandalism continue, while railing on endlessly about any acts of violence that make his policies sound remotely rational, his words are meaningless.

He’s also moving ahead with a new agency based around publishing regular lists of crimes committed by immigrantsliterally a tactic employed by the Nazis against Jewish people. That’s exactly the kind of anti-immigrant fear-stoking that leads to hate crimes like the shooting in Kansas that resulted in the death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, which Trump specifically claimed to condemn at the top of his speech. You don’t get to take credit for standing against xenophobic, racist violence in word while promoting it with policy. That’s not presidential; it’s abhorrent, and anyone in the news media is complicit when they don’t point that out in glossing over this speech with a positive review. (It’s also just not true that undocumented immigrants have a higher crime rate than citizens.)

As for the second moment, this is the subject of a heated discussion on the internet right now. Many pundits, as well as viewers, saw his words to Owens as moving and heartfelt. Others, though, can’t see past the fact that just earlier that day, Trump blamed the death of Ryan Owens on his generals, as well as Obama. He also told Carryn that her husband “generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies,” even though that is heavily disputed. (Update: Further developments suggest at least some useful intelligence was gathered.) If that’s not true, Trump’s words are not just hollow, they’re lies, and to be celebrated as “presidential” is mind-boggling.

Whatever your thoughts on that moment, or the rest of the speech, or Trump’s presidency in general, it’s important to remember that there are sources out there that do extensive fact-checking. (Try here and here and here and here, just for a start.) And those sources don’t always agree, which can be confusing but also works to ensure we, as a people, remain informed and develop the tools to think critically about our government.

In these times, which are so scary for so many, resistance comes from education, so let’s keep ourselves educated. And let’s also look to beautiful beacons of resistance like the fantastic Maxine Waters, who reminds us that our mere absence is a form of protest when our presence would be a tacit endorsement.

Let’s look to these Democratic women of Congress, who busted out their silent suffragist symbolism.

And let’s look to the Supreme Court Justices who cannot even with this for one second longer.

(image via screengrab)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.