I tend to watch television networks that agree with my perspective. I’m not proud of this, but I find myself simply unable to view programs for long periods where editorial standards lie way beyond what I perceive to be reality. I know this has the tendency to reinforce my bias, but at least I am aware of this failure in my viewing patterns. And, this week I sought to do something about it.
I watched the news clips from the President’s remarks to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee, and I wondered if these clips were taken out of context. I had to find out for myself. So, I steeled myself, and decided to watch the President’s CPAC speech—in its entirety—and then draw my own conclusions to see if his two-hour tour de force changed my understanding of his presidency.[AFTER I decided to do this, I came across a tongue-in-cheek OpEd by CNN Editor-at-large, Chris Cillizza. You can stop reading my words now—and go here for his caustic, insightful commentary—it is a great read! But if you choose to stay with me, I will continue.]
I confess that I was immediately off-put even before the President began speaking as he hugged the American flag—with a smirk. I am not offended by someone hugging the flag, but the goofy grin that accompanied his gesture seemed to cheapen the act, demeaning it to the point of irreverence. Later, as he often does, if he is criticized by veterans or first responders, he could say that he was enjoying the moment—”just having fun.” Somehow, though, his attitude in this action seemed to diminish the sacrifice of those who serve.
I have come to expect the stream-of-consciousness manner of his speeches. Since he was in his element (well-heeled conservative evangelicals), it didn’t surprise me that he went “off script.” But it was the way his remarks careened from one unrelated topic to the next, that I found so unsettling. At one point he ping-ponged from sanctuary cities to abortion to his prowess as a politician to Georgia’s gubernatorial primary to his respect for Kim Jung Un to the comeback in American steel, all in a matter of minutes.
I found it disconcerting how often he used the pronoun “they” without clear attribution—immigrants, observers of his State of the Union address, members of Congress, heads of state in Central American countries, Democrats, the news media. Sometimes it wasn’t quite clear to whom he was referring. He would frequently veer off message and then return to his points in a wild swing of emotions. This was disappointing though not surprising. As we have come to expect, he told stories that were outright untrue or wildly exaggerated. This tactic of his should not be overlooked. One of the greatest post-Trump challenges facing the American people will be to restore a relationship to, and respect for, the truth.
He talked about beautiful machine guns outside his White House window, about a Central American refugee who longed to come to America just so he could commit murder, about General Raisin Cain (did he not get the joke? Did the encounter really happen?), about never having a single empty seat at his rallies. He did (rightly) tout the full-throated US economy; but think of all the things that were missing from his speech—gun violence, climate change, affordable health care, income inequality, student loan debt, mass incarceration, police violence, cohesive foreign policy, the scourge of racism.
He wouldn’t end his litany of favorite things without speaking of the scourge of racism or how to address the divisions in our country, would he? Finally, near the end of his remarks, he did not disappoint. Rather, he introduced Hayden Williams who was punched on the Berkeley campus for, apparently, vigorously supporting the President. Right out of central casting, Williams told of being bullied by liberals who don’t like Trump; and the President responded by using this incident to announce an executive order supporting “free speech” on college campuses. On and on it went.
The exercise was worth it. One takeaway for me—something you cannot really appreciate in short clips or sound bites—was the overarching tone of the President’s remarks. Everything was laced with cynicism and sarcasm. He was always misunderstood, always the victim. There was no joy. Even when he spoke about having a good laugh, it was with a pout or a sneer. His affect was that of a wounded child. I wondered about his pledge to make America great and if this was the way he hoped to accomplish it. In the end, one word kept surfacing in my mind, a word I think the President would appreciate: sad. If this is the pathway to making America great, please don’t count me in.