The morning after President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress, the Dow Jones industrial average shot up 300 points, lifting the stock market above 21,000. But the excitement of the money managers couldn’t touch the ecstasy of conservative observers. John Hinderaker of the Power Line blog gushed that the speech was “tremendous” and “inspired,” and that Trump himself was “magnificent.” Chris Wallace of Fox News dubbed the speech “one of the best speeches in that setting I’ve ever heard any president give ever by a president.” The Wall Street Journal’s James Freeman offered that Trump delivered “perhaps the most compelling moment in the history of presidential addresses.”
Whoa. When you frighten people into thinking you may not have the mental stability or emotional maturity to sit behind the Resolute desk, the first sign of normality can send them into raptures. Let’s see how long this lasts.
Before Tuesday, President Trump had even given well-wishers plenty of reasons for disquiet: the assertion of “alternative facts” regarding inauguration crowd sizes; the blatant misrepresentations about the Electoral College victory; the abrupt firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn followed by dark intimations that he’d been undone by “the media”; the public whining about Ivanka Trump’s treatment at the hands of Nordstrom; the declaration of the press as “the enemy of the American people”; the incompetent rollout of a temporary travel ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations; and, remarkably, much more. The secretary of defense had to travel the world reassuring NATO that Trump did not mean to undermine the alliance and assuring Iraq that despite repeated assertions from the president, the U.S. is not, in fact, planning to steal Iraq’s oil.
So when President Trump delivered a speech to Congress free of the obsessions, insecurities and intemperate attacks that too often characterize his public persona, he deserved praise. The speech (at last) included some of the necessary civilities that we expect from American leaders. He began by recognizing Black History Month and decrying anti-Semitism. For the first time, in my memory at least, he wove references to freedom and our founding into his remarks. This accomplished two things: It gave the speech a reassuring tone, and it fit Trump into American traditions instead of him being in opposition to them. Most of all, though one can quibble about whether this was the proper setting, it did permit President Trump to salute a fallen American, and that, too, is a welcome departure from some of his earlier disparagements of military heroes.
But let’s keep our heads. It was not a great speech. In fact, from a conservative perspective, while there were some good proposals, it was evidence of how much ground has been lost.
On the positive side of the ledger, Trump is rolling back regulations, which are like 50-pound weights on the ankles of American businesses. He plans to rebuild the depleted military, and he endorses school choice, among other worthy policies.
But Republicans were once the party of fiscal responsibility — or they tried to be, at least. The Democrats were the party that promised the moon — free college, free child care, paid family leave — all subsidized by taxes on the rich.
The Trumpublicans are now overtaking the Democrats in the race to bankrupt the country. Trump promised a new $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill; a plan to destroy the Islamic State group; a “great, great wall” on the southern border; paid family leave; “affordable and accessible” child care; more help for veterans; more spending on women’s health; a replacement for Obamacare that will deliver better care at lower prices; and more. And where the Democrats (totally unrealistically, to be sure) promised to raise taxes on the rich to pay for their wish list, the Trumpublicans are planning to cut taxes on corporations and provide “massive tax relief” for the middle class. If there was even a nod to how all of this will affect the public fisc, I missed it.
And while Trump’s delivery was measured and non-hysterical, his speech was not entirely free of alternative facts. We have not “spent approximately “$6 trillion in the Middle East.” The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reportedly cost $1.6 trillion from 2001 to 2014. Too many people are out of work, but to say that “94 million Americans are out of the labor force” is highly misleading. Nearly all of those 94 million are retired, students, disabled or homemakers. Refocusing immigration policy to favor the highly skilled seems sensible, and rapidly deporting criminals is only common sense. But it is not the case that our crime problem is disproportionately due to immigrants; and Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, a proposed new office of the Department of Homeland Security, is not only a clunky name — it’s unworthy scapegoating.
More than fiscal responsibility, conservatism is founded upon modesty about what government can achieve. As the Republicans rose to cheer Trump’s assertion that “Every problem can be solved,” we saw that insight go out the window.
Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.