Trump?s Congress address analysed: How did this speech fool so many news outlets?

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Jeff HalperinUpdated: Mar 02, 2017, 08:23 AM IST
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Trump supporters applauded throughout the president's speech. But not everybody was taken in, and they remained seated. February 28, 2017. Washington, DC. Photograph:(AFP)

Many of Trump’s dependable media critics took a day off and praised his address to Congress. The New York Times ran the headline, “Trump, in optimistic address, asks Congress to end trivial fights”. The Washington Post, “In first joint address to Congress, Trump wins high marks for steady, muscular tone”. Another Washington Post headlined called his speech "surprisingly presidential". They were not alone.

These major US media outlets are rebranding themselves as crusaders in the war between Trump versus facts. While their Congress speech coverage wasn’t universally positive, they and others got fooled because for 60 consecutive minutes Trump generally managed to impersonate an adult. Also, perhaps they responded favourably because for once the president didn't berate them.

The full speech is here. Reading it is suggested, because it's different than watching Trump perform it.

It’s impossible to address every lie in the speech because most sentences contain at least one, or are founded on one. But let’s look closely at one excerpt. The beginning of the speech was praised, despite being dangerous and profoundly untrue. This is both representative of Trump’s overall modus operandi, and illustrative of how even non-supporters can fail to understand him:

“Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains. Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centres and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”

Trump here doesn’t celebrate Black culture or condemn acts of racism or murder, he is reminding everybody that he already has. Ingrained in the paragraph is his belief that by definition the US is automatically against hate and evil, so as president, the ultimate embodiment of this virtuous country, Trump is automatically virtuous. He is praising himself, not supporting targeted minority groups.

For weeks he has been asked to condemn the rise of racist attacks since the election. Here, he devotes only two sentences to three groups. Apologies require admitting fault so he doesn’t do that, here or anywhere. It would be against his programming. He just utters the word “Black” and “Jewish” aloud without saying something horrible after. This bar is disgracefully, grotesquely low.   

Yet even here he cannot bring himself to say “Muslim”. He does say “Muslim” twice in the hour-long speech but later, and only in the context of working with Muslim allies to fight Islamic State, or, in Trump's typical trite, overcompensating language, “Extinguish this vile enemy from our planet”. Several mosques have been burned in the US since the November 8 election, but Trump only utters “Muslim” in the context of Muslim allies helping to kill other Muslims. This is the president extending an olive branch? He did not end his silence on these attacks, he continued it.

Some Indian media credited Trump with something that simply did not happen. NDTV ran the headline “President Donald Trump denounces killing of Indian engineer in state of union address”. No, Trump did not denounce the killing. He only alluded to it broadly, in part of one sentence, with a euphemism and a dodge. He carefully avoided expanding on or conveying what happened, which is: A white American murdered an innocent Indian man and shot two others because, as if this is a credible reason, he thought they were Iranian. A witness heard the shooter say, "Get out of my country" before firing.

Later in the speech Trump singled out victims of other attacks that fit his narrative, like the father whose son was, in Trump's words, "viciously murdered by an illegal immigrant gang member". Ask yourself, why does Trump so brashly emphasize the attacker's background when they're not white, but remain silent about this aspect when the murderer is white? Trump never said "Indian" or the name Srinivas Kuchibhotla aloud. This is all crammed into the limp term, “the Kansas shooting”. And again, Trump never condemned this in his speech, he reminded us that he had already done so, when he had not.

Lest anyone think this is splitting hairs, remember, when Trump is genuinely moved his language is anything but subtle. To Trump  Islamic State isn’t just the enemy, they’re “a network of lawless savages”, et cetera. He did not call it the "Kansas multiple shooting", or the "Kansas murder". If Trump felt sincerely pained by a racist murder, he would have rushed to Twitter to say something like the US needs a “total and complete shutdown” on racist murderers. We would not be sitting here five days after the killing, parsing language trying to figure out what Trump meant.

There is enough data on Trump to know where he stands. The verdict was in a long time before he addressed Congress: The president is a dangerous bigot who will never change. Even if he did condemn racism in this speech it would be moot, because it assumes that there was something left to decide about the man.

Trump managed to fool people incapable of decoding both his warped worldview and his barely-veiled bigotry, even his critics, by calmly reading from a teleprompter words he obviously didn’t write. When students accomplish this it’s called plagiarism, for him it's presidential.

If president of the United States requires this little, every single employee in the world deserves an enormous raise and promotion.