Smiling for Congress as he sharpens the knives

March 2, 2017

That Trump's speech to Congress could be greeted with not just tolerance, but relief and even praise, shows how out of touch Washington is, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

"VERY PRESIDENTIAL." That was the media consensus the day after Donald Trump's first speech to Congress.

The New York Times, which the administration banned from a press briefing days earlier, lavished praise on Trump for "deliver[ing] the most presidential speech he has ever given."

On CNN, Van Jones--a once-upon-a-time radical who was forced out of the Obama administration after a brief stint as its "green jobs tsar"--actually said: "[H]e did something tonight that you cannot take away from him. He became president of the United States."

Clearly, the bar is very, very low.

True, Trump restrained himself from punching out a Democrat, and he didn't use phases like "American carnage." But even dogs--no offense intended toward dogs--can learn a new trick or two with enough help from a team of public relations people.

Trump's speech to Congress only proves that he is the ultimate huckster--someone who can turn on a dime anytime he wants, not because he's had a change of heart, but because he'll play any role he has to, if it suits his interests.

Trump delivers his first address in front of Congress
Trump delivers his first address in front of Congress

In this case, Trump was remarkably successful in distracting the media--not to mention Democrats--from the substance of his program: for example, a series of policies aimed at marginalizing and scapegoating the most vulnerable in U.S. society.

Along with reaffirming his commitment to building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, Trump introduced his VOICE program. Under VOICE, which stands for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, the federal government will release regular lists of undocumented immigrants who commit crimes--a practice that recalls Nazi-era policies to scapegoat Jews, as Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! pointed out.

So, no, this isn't a new Donald Trump. It's the same hateful bigot trying to redirect people's anger way from politicians like himself, and toward immigrants and Muslims.

In many ways, Trump's speech to Congress was about showing that he can play ball with the Republican majority in Congress.

GOP leaders were willing to put up with some of his unorthodox positions while riding the coattails of his popularity after the election. But they're less sure how far to go after the botched opening weeks of Trump's presidency produced outrage that reached into the political establishment.

Fellow Republicans don't mind what Trump has to say about immigrants and Muslims, of course. But he has fights ahead where his stated positions deviate from GOP priorities.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and his crew want deep cuts in Medicare and Social Security. Trump claims he wants to leave these popular entitlement programs intact, but he'll still make good on his promise to slash federal spending--probably by decimating the little extras, like public education, science and health care.

Trump also promised in his speech to create "millions" of jobs and make major investments to rebuild public infrastructure, like bridges and roads. These are exactly the kind of "big government" programs that the Tea Partying Republicans have fought against for years.

Trump promised child care credits and paid family leave, pet projects of Ivanka Trump, but the GOP leadership in Congress wants none of it.

That "up, up and away" feeling from right after the election might be slipping away for Trump and the Republicans on another issue: The promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act has turned into "repeal and replace," with a growing acknowledgement that the GOP might not be able to repeal Obamacare until it has something to replace it with.

Then there's the controversial economic program that Trump laid out in his speech to Congress, as he did during the presidential campaign: a muscular "America First" economic nationalism that includes opposition to trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, along with threats to wage a trade war on the rest of the world.

According to a draft document to Congress reportedly prepared by his administration, the administration is preparing to ignore any rulings by the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it sees as an affront to U.S. sovereignty. In other countries, the WTO is generally regarded as a tool for imposing Washington's interests, but Trump and Co. are threatening to "aggressively defend American sovereignty over matters of trade policy."

While Trump didn't say the words "trade war" in his speech, the meaning was clear. His program will cause deeper conflicts within the U.S. ruling class--but all the more so with capitalists around the world.

AND SPEAKING of global war...

Military spending is one part of the budget that definitely won't suffer under a Trump administration. If Trump gets his way, the Pentagon budget will get a $54 billion increase, bringing it to more than $600 billion. To put that into perspective, the current Education Department budget is around $68 billion total.

In order to sell this increase, Trump whipped up fears of Islamic terrorism in his speech but also turned the spotlight on invited guest, Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, who was killed in a botched raid on a Yemeni village. There were several minutes of applause as all eyes turned on Owens, who wept uncontrollably.

"And Ryan is looking down right now. You know that. And he's very happy, because I think he just broke a record," Trump said, meaning the length of the standing ovation.

Owens' father, Bill Owens, wasn't at the speech. And he refused to meet with Trump at Dover Air Force Base when the Owens family came to greet Ryan's body. He wants an investigation into the mission that took his son's life, not to mention the lives of 25 Yemeni civilians, a mission whose failure Trump blamed on "the generals" in an interview with Fox & Friends on the morning of his rousing saber-rattling oration.

But Bill Owen's questions about why his son was in Yemen won't get in the way of Trump getting more money to escalate the U.S. "war on terror." Nor will the fact that nine of the dead Yemeni civilians killed that day were children under the age of 13.

Nor will anyone in sitting in that audience last night question the toll their war in the name of fighting terrorism mean in human terms--more death, more poverty, and a greater crisis for those who will continue to flee those countries.

There won't be any question about the increased military spending--because it's something the Democrats and Republicans agree upon.

As for the opposition party's response to the speech--which is the tradition after a president has spoken, and is usually reserved for a party up-and-comer--the Democrats couldn't seem to find a sitting politician to do it, so they brought in a retired governor from Kentucky.

Yes, that's right, Steve Beshear hasn't been in public office since 2015--yet he was charged with making the Democrats' big case against Trump. That's because Kentucky is a red state, and Beshear comes from a small, rural town--exactly the constituency that the Democrats now want to focus on. That evidently is their takeaway from Election 2016 and massive protests that erupted after Trump won--the rural, white Southern vote is key.

A section of Democratic women, including Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), wore white to Trump's speech symbolizing the Suffragette movement, but it might as well have been white for surrender for all the opposition they're showing.

"I was very proud of the dignity with which our members listened to a speech," Pelosi said during an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" the day after.

For all the threats it made during the election about why we had to stop Trump by any means necessary, the Democratic Party establishment's idea of "opposition" is so far from what's necessary to push back the Republicans' agenda, it's laughable--especially when you consider the opposition that ordinary people are showing at town hall meetings and at protests that skewer their elected officials for failing to represent them.

A Pew Research Center survey in late February reported that nearly three-quarters of Democrats said they were concerned the party would not do enough to oppose Trump. Just 20 percent were concerned Democrats would go too far in opposition.

The response to last night's speech is the latest example of how much the Democrats want us to think Trump's administration is unbeatable and how little they want us to expect in the way of opposition. This strategy shows just how politics gets pushed further to the right.

We'll have to show them what opposition looks like.

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