January 20, 2019

Trump and the power of English

Well, was that all that difficult? President Donald Trump delivered a very nice speech last night in front of Congress and the media headlines this morning were … normal. After a month of craziness and chaos, normal feels like a miracle.

In a New York Times piece titled, “A Radical Move for Trump: A Conventional Address,” Glenn Thrush wrote that “At precisely the moment he needed to project sobriety, President Trump delivered the most presidential speech he has ever given.”

Chris Cillizza, in The Washington Post, wrote that “This may have been the best speech Trump has given since he entered politics in June 2015, and people rooting for his imminent demise may be disappointed.”

Over at Fox TV, Charles Krauthammer called it “without a doubt the best speech he ever gave. In fact, this should have been his inaugural address, a version of it. And it would have actually had an effect on the launch of his presidency and vastly reduced the hysteria that has emerged in the country on the left.”

Indeed, if Trump’s inaugural address was steak tartare, his speech last night was more like tiramisu.

What happened?

English happened. Life happened. Someone in the White House — it could be Trump himself, it could be an evil PR genius, it could be his daughter Ivanka, it could be the Dalai Lama on Skype — had this staggering insight that it’s OK to be nice.

Yes, it’s OK to be nice. It’s OK to say nice things, even if your preference is to say mean, divisive, macho things. In fact, one of the incredible truths about life is that you can say nice things and no one will think you’re a wimp or a loser.

Great presidents — strong, confident, powerful presidents — have been saying nice things since the founding of our nation and no one ever held these words against them. Last night, Trump tried to catch up with them.

“We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” he said at the beginning of his address, noting our current celebration of Black History Month and recent acts of anti-Semitism.

“Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice — in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present,” he continued. “That torch is now in our hands. And we will use it to light up the world. I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart.”

A man known for his bullying speaking from his heart. Who knew?

A friend of mine who can’t stand Trump complained that, “He was just reading a speech, for heaven’s sake. It’s just words.”

Well, yes, it’s just words, which is precisely the point.

Insults are also “just words.” But words take on a reality of their own. Words, if repeated often enough, can shape reality.

It’s quite possible and even plausible that few of the words last night were written by Trump. But having delivered them, they are now his. He owns them. That speech is like a building with a big, flashy Trump logo on top.

Of course, not everything Trump said last night was nice—far from it. There were flashes of the dark side he showed in his inaugural address, and the press has covered it. But the point is this: When you frame your overall message in a positive way, when your tone is calm and sober rather than incendiary, you buy yourself some forgiveness. You buy yourself more positive headlines.

Do you move people who hate you? I doubt it. Trump haters are too far gone– there is zero trust and zero faith. As The Los Angeles Times reported, the speech was “inspiring to some, frightful to others.”

So, we shouldn’t get carried away with one speech, even if it represents a radical departure. By the time you read this, Trump may already have spoiled the whole thing with a series of nasty Tweets.

Still, for one night at least, our president showed us the power of positive language. If I were his chief adviser, I would do a mash-up of all his uplifting words and make sure he sees it every night before going to sleep, and every morning before going to work. And I would make sure to crank up the applause.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.