By Ross Douthat
Jan. 9, 2019, 675 c
President Trump made his first prime-time Oval Office address on Tuesday night.
Credit, Joshua Bright for The New York Times
“The people who didn’t want television networks to cede a prime-time hour last night — or, as it turned out, a prime-time 10 minutes — to the president of the United States were implicitly giving Donald Trump a credit that he does not deserve. There is a kind of silver-tongued orator who can persuade in any situation, who like Caesar’s Mark Antony can find a crowd leaning one way and leave them stirred up for the opposite cause, who is legitimately dangerous when given a rostrum or a soapbox or a prime-time speech. But that is not our president: His rhetoric is a bludgeon, and what we saw last night was just an attempt to club his enemies and critics with the same arguments he’s made a thousand times before.
In fairness to Trump, the immigration bludgeon was effective once — for two reasons that played out in surprising ways across the 2016 campaign. First, Trump-the-candidate’s dire warnings about criminals and terrorists crossing the southern border dovetailed with two 2016-specific trends — the spike in violent crime after decades of decline, and the rash of Islamic State-inspired attacks on both sides of the Atlantic.
Second, the extremity of his rhetoric persuaded skeptics of mass immigration, long burned by politicians of both parties, that Trump would not betray them. In a political landscape where every year seemed to bring a new bipartisan push for amnesties and immigration increases, his xenophobic style was an effective political marker for anyone with inchoate anxieties about immigration. You didn’t have to literally believe that he would build the Wall and make Mexico pay for it to regard that wild promise as evidence that he would be more genuinely restrictionist and hawkish on the issue than politicians merely paying lip service to “border security.”
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But the problem for Trump is that presidents have to deal with changing circumstances and cope with unexpected crises, not just fulminate in the same style regardless of the context. And the world of 2019 looks different than the world in which he campaigned. The crime rate didn’t keep rising, the pace of terror attacks hasn’t quickened, and fate has given him an immigration crisis that’s substantially different than the crisis of murderers and terror plotters that he invoked in his campaign rhetoric — a humanitarian crisis, a crisis of families and children, in which the problem isn’t the people that we can’t catch crossing the borders but the people who surrender willingly, hoping to exploit our overstrained asylum system and disappear with their kids into the American interior.”
David Lindsay: Yes and well done Ross Douthat. Here is a comment I fully endorsed”