President Donald Trump likes to call media organizations that report his missteps “failing.” The aftermath of his speech to Congress on Tuesday night marked a circumstance where the shoe would have fit — though for the opposite reason.
In his speech, Trump changed his tone and tamped down his language. He read from a teleprompter and spent much of the speech talking about jobs and unification. “We all bleed the same blood,” he said. He even elicited pathos by citing the heroism of the late Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens; his widow broke down when Trump called her husband “a warrior and a hero.” In a word, Trump was “presidential.”
That was the focus for mainstream media organizations. On CNN’s postshow panel, Van Jones said Trump’s Owens story marked the moment when Trump became president of the United States. The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and The New York Times all covered the speech as representing a shift in tone.
Trump’s rhetoric was indeed more subdued. And audiences reacted positively. In post-speech polling, CNN found that “[n]early 7-in-10 who watched said the President's proposed policies would move the country in the right direction and almost two-thirds said the president has the right priorities for the country. Overall, about 7-in-10 said the speech made them feel more optimistic about the direction of the country.”
On CNN, there was much discussion of whether the shift would last and what would happen when the rubber meets the road. Would Trump go back to tweeting in the wee hours of the morning? How would he square a 10 percent increase in military spending?
Largely overlooked was Trump’s sly pivot on immigration rhetoric. Earlier on Tuesday The New York Times reported that Trump was softening his stance on deportations. In the speech, Trump advocated a new path based not on deporting all illegal immigrants but on deporting the right illegal immigrants. "Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, will have many benefits,” Trump said. “It will save countless dollars, raise workers' wages, and help struggling families — including immigrant families — enter the middle class."
But later in the speech, Trump continued his fearmongering about immigrants. He announced that he had “ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims. The office is called VOICE — Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.”
Trump went on to put human faces on his concocted epidemic. He told the story of Jamiel Shaw. “Jamiel's 17-year-old son was viciously murdered by an illegal immigrant gang member, who had just been released from prison,” Trump said.
Not only was Trump creating baseless, xenophobic anxieties, he was announcing a new organization, for which we do not know its scope or role. Will VOICE be assuaging fears or stoking them? Will it be an organization that listens or that polices?
These questions weren’t asked on CNN’s post-show broadcast. VOICE was barely mentioned. As though Barack Obama or George W. Bush had given the speech, the panel spent the bulk of its time debating budgeting and size of the government. But had Obama or Bush passingly demonized illegal immigrants and announced the creation of a VOICE-like organization, would that have gone overlooked? It is distressing that Trump merely needs to speak in the style of a normal president for the media to begin treating him like one.