Every day, the comedian Megan Amram tweets “Today was the day Donald Trump finally became president.” It’s a joke both on the people who hoped that Trump might grow into his office, and on the president himself, who lives in a fantasy land where he’s a statesman of world-historical caliber even as he smashes cherished norms and gets played by dictators.
Given the president’s delusions, the strangest part of his prime-time address on Tuesday night didn’t turn out to be a declaration of national emergency or a breathtakingly vulgar denunciation of undocumented immigrants. It was the sight of Trump straining to play a normal president. The performance didn’t last long. And it suggested that if Trump suddenly acquired the self-discipline to behave the way we expect a president to act, the resulting whiplash might be even more jarring than the past two years have already been.
Going into the evening, it seemed possible that Trump would careen across a political and moral red line, declaring that he would use emergency powers to deliver on his signature campaign promise, to build a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico. Given the hype, it was disconcerting to hear a speech that, at least for the opening minutes, could have been delivered by any normal politician.
Trump described the situation at the border as “a growing humanitarian and security crisis.” He said immigrants “enrich our society and contribute to our nation.” He expressed concern for African American and Hispanic workers. He ruminated about “a crisis of the soul.” He lamented the sexual assaults against women on the perilous trip north. And he said of politicians and wealthy people who surround their homes with gates and other security measures, “They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside.”
Those very gestures of presidential normalcy revealed how futile it was for anyone to wish that Trump would start talking like that all the time. Trump may have told more blatant falsehoods about immigrants and crime over the course of his speech, but to watch him mouth these platitudes is to witness a more insidious and disorienting kind of lying.
He doesn’t “hate the people on the outside" -- except for all the Mexican immigrants he falsely tarred as drug mules and rapists. The same man feigning deep concern for vulnerable women once bragged that when he meets beautiful women, he likes to grab their genitals.
Watching Trump’s flat delivery of sentiments that he can’t possibly believe was the inverse of comforting. Instead, the address had the queasy effect of a serial killer’s mask in a horror movie: It was a failed attempt to look normal that concealed something even more terrifying underneath.
In the second half of the address, that mask dropped away and Trump regained some of his animation as he described terrible crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. The whole performance is a testament to why it’s unwise to hope that Trump grows into his office and that he learns how to play a normal president. If he did, he’d be much more effective at advancing his agenda, and people on both sides of the border would be in much greater peril.