Trump's rhetoric hits his wall

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

Listen up, people: This is the time to search for the tallest summit and set our sights on the brightest star. Do the incredible. Defy the impossible. We have not yet begun to dream.

No, I’m not quoting from one of those animated movies that you think is a Disney film but turns out to be some cut-rate imitation that went straight to video. No, these lines come directly from President Trump’s State of the Union address — specifically from the part near the end, almost 90 minutes in, when you were snoring on the couch and just into a nightmare about marauding immigrant caravans.

There were parts of this almost-English speech when it felt like the speechwriter got bored and just handed the whole thing over to a sixth grader, with only some fortune cookies for direction.

But that said, no one remembers State of the Union addresses for the oratory; offhand, I can’t think of a single memorable line from any in the last 20 years, and I’ve been contractually coerced into sitting through all of them.

What we remember, if anything, is what the president hoped, in a perfect world, to accomplish with the time he had, and how close he ultimately came.

When Trump walked into the chamber Tuesday, he became the fourth consecutive president to stand before Congress after losing control of it. That’s easily a first in American history, and it tells you all you really need to know about the dissatisfaction and volatility that have defined the electorate for the last 30 years.

Trump’s predecessors, each in his own way, had taken that moment after a crushing defeat to try to reset the narrative about their presidencies.

In 1995, Bill Clinton recast himself as a willing dealmaker, coopting the Republican agenda for tax cuts and smaller government. Twelve years later, after a second-term collapse, George W. Bush emphasized common cause with Democrats on reforming immigration, infuriating his conservative base.

In 2011, Barack Obama pushed policy to the side in favor of a sweeping story about the American journey and an exhortation to “win the future” — essentially trying to reclaim the inspirational themes that had defined his campaign.

Trump’s speech this week started out in a similar vein, with a bunch of familiar tropes about the need for unity and common purpose. “We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution,” wrote the speechwriter who apparently thinks alliteration makes you Churchill.

“We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance…” You get the point.

But soon enough, Trump landed, unrepentant, on the theme of the night, and of his presidency. He spent a full 15 minutes on the horror at the southern border, the existential threat to America, the gangs and theoretical sex traffickers who seem to lurk in every unlit corner of his mind.

The wall, the wall, the wall.

Trump’s governing agenda doesn’t really add up to a presidency anymore. It’s more like a big zoning dispute. His imaginary wall is like the tower on Fifth Avenue, or the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, or the resort at Mar-a-Lago.

He must have the permits, cut the ribbon with an oversize pair of scissors, run his hands over the giant sign with his name on it. It’s what the man knows how to do.

I don’t discount Trump’s concern about border security. Every modern president has worried about the influx of untracked people and drugs across the southern border, and the inequity of an immigration system that seems to punish those who follow the rules. (Although Trump is alone, despite his statements to the contrary, in trying to roll back legal immigration, too.)

But as I watched him stake his presidency, yet again, on the Great Wall of Texas, I couldn’t help thinking of how sadly wasted his talents have been.

Because Trump does have considerable talent; he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t. He’s a master builder — or rather, he’s a master at getting other people to build things to which he can attach his name, employing some combination of risk-taking vision and hucksterism (along with a small army of those undocumented immigrants he wants so badly to deport).

Trump is Lyle Lanley, the entertaining con man who sells Springfield the monorail. He loves to build gaudy stuff with other people’s money.

And the sad thing is that America really could have used a guy with that talent right about now. There’s no end of things we actually need to raise up if we want to construct a durable, 21st century economy for our kids. (And no end to the national debt Congress seems willing to let a president rack up if he can sell his agenda.)

Our developer president could have focused his energy on building airports and high-speed rail lines to transform dying industrial centers into high-tech hubs. He could have thrown himself into stringing up world-class internet cables like the phone lines from a century ago. He could have built new, high-tech schools to train the next generation of workers.

All of that would have fit nicely under the banner of “America First.” All of it would have stood a strong chance of winning bipartisan support. Trump could have put his name on shiny new buildings all over the country for a century to come, and we wouldn’t have minded so much.

But Trump can only think of one place to sink a shovel, and that’s turning out to be the sinkhole of his administration. He spent only a few lines of his speech Tuesday talking vaguely about other infrastructure projects, with all the enthusiasm of a robocall.

If you can believe one of Trump’s fringe-y former aides, this whole idea of a wall was just a device they dreamed up to keep him on message during the early days of the campaign. At this point, having shut down the government over the issue and lost, Trump has basically retreated to a version of a wall — see-through barriers, strategically deployed in high-traffic areas — that would have seemed barely controversial had he started with it.

But it’s too late now. The blatant dishonesty and xenophobia that underlie his pitch have poisoned the debate. Even in its most modest, face-saving form, the wall will not be built — and neither will the airports and rail lines that could have been Trump’s enduring, three-dimensional legacy.

“What will we do with this moment?” Trump asked Tuesday, in another moment of cat-poster rhetoric. “How will we be remembered?”

I don’t know about the rest of us, but I can tell you this: Trump won’t be remembered as the builder president, which is what he should have been. He’ll go down as the guy who blew all his capital and creativity on a mirage of concrete.

Truth be told, a monorail would have been a better idea.

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