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OPINION

Trump alters his tone to suit the occasion

JACK OHMAN/WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

By MARC FISHER | The Washington Post | Published: January 31, 2018

This was the president who emerges on special occasions, the president with the smooth, modulated voice. No shouts, no big gestures, not a mention of “radical Islamic terrorism” or “a network of lawless savages.”

The Donald Trump who delivered his first State of the Union address Tuesday night referred instead to “ISIS.” He didn’t say a word about his opponents, nothing about the critics. The man who rose to power on a wave of inflammatory rhetoric sounded as if he’d been doused with a warm glass of milk.

Using a gentle tone and tempered language, this President Donald Trump struck a new note of bipartisan appeal: “We endured floods and fires and storms,” he said of his first year in office. “But through it all, we have seen the beauty of America’s soul and the steel in America’s spine.

Trump still takes pride in breaking with tradition. But in tone and content Tuesday night, he behaved more like the politician he says he is not.

“This is our new American moment,” he said, deploying the kind of rhetoric most any president might use. He spoke not to his base but to “all of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family.”

Trump was elected as a nonideological anti-politician with a passion for straight, even coarse, language. But a review of his scripted speeches over the past year shows the development of a more nuanced rhetoric for official occasions. For the State of the Union and other formal events, Trump’s language, while still far simpler and blunter than most presidents’, is a far cry from his biting, sometimes sniping, voice on Twitter or the raw populism he uses to win cheers at rallies.

Last week, addressing the world’s business leaders at Davos, Switzerland, for example, Trump framed the U.S. approach toward Islamic State as “leading a very broad coalition to deny terrorists control of their territory and populations.” “Radical Islam” again went unmentioned.

This softer approach has evolved. In the early weeks of his presidency, Trump had not yet erected a clear boundary between Twitter — where he gave his opponents belittling nicknames and railed against “fake news” — and settings such as the East Room of the White House or the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Although Trump sought in his inaugural address to offer hope for a united country, he also focused on his America First theme — “a new national pride,” he called it — which many heard as raw nativism, or what presidential historian Douglas Brinkley called “American nationalism on steroids.”

Before his 2016 election, Trump repeatedly promised worried Republican leaders that he could easily pivot from the incendiary language that thrilled the crowd at the GOP convention but was likely to alienate much of the country. Trump’s convention speech featured attacks on “illegal immigrants … roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” on Hillary Clinton’s “terrible, terrible crimes,” and on Barack Obama for using the presidency “to divide us by race and color.”

Trump assured doubters that “I can be more presidential than any president that this country has ever had, except for Abraham Lincoln, because you can’t out-top Abraham Lincoln.”

After boasting for decades about his ability to present himself however the situation warrants, Trump has developed three markedly different roles over the past year. Twitter Trump is brash, blunt and biting. Everyday President Trump is more reserved but savors his ability to blow up the daily rituals of Washington with rhetorical bombs. And Special Occasion Trump reads stiffly from the teleprompter, tones down his language and comes closest to sounding traditionally presidential.

Trump’s formal addresses stand out because his delivery departs so starkly from the rambling, teasing, searing and viscerally populist style of the arena rallies he relishes.

Speaking to Congress or appearing with foreign leaders, Trump alters his voice, volume, rhetoric and body language. He pulls in his arms and cuts back on his often-improvised exhortations to “believe me.” He is quieter, gentler, more gracious.

Content and style merge as Trump makes a nod toward the more diplomatic vocabulary that his predecessors considered the everyday language of the office. On Inauguration Day, he opened his speech with a sentence that had touches of Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt: “We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people.”

But Trump, as he would be the first to argue, must always remain Trump. In the very next paragraph of that first speech, the new president shortened his sentences, simplified his word choices and hit home with a typically brash promise: “We will get the job done.”

A few seconds later, he was bashing the members of the establishment who surrounded him on the Capitol portico: “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” he said. “Their victories have not been your victories. … That all changes starting right here and right now.”

In passages that White House officials ascribed to Stephen Miller, the author of many of Trump’s formal speeches, the president has sometimes startled audiences with a more lurid and gloomy tone than Americans are accustomed to hearing from their leader.

In the inaugural speech, Trump painted a dark portrait of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” “an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge,” “drugs that have stolen too many lives” — a mural of “American carnage.”

On Tuesday night, Trump flexed that rhetorical muscle when he described a crime syndicate as “the savage gang MS-13.”

But the bulk of the address eschewed the crushing verbs and eviscerating adjectives that he has used in the past to portray a nation in dangerous decline. This Trump, on his best behavior, reached tentatively for poetry as he sketched the rough outlines of the country he seeks to restore to purportedly lost greatness.

“The people dreamed this country,” he said. “The people built this country. And it is the people who are making America great again.”

In scripted speeches throughout the past year, Trump has pivoted from red-meat reminders of his populist, nationalist appeal to a far more sanguine description of America’s relationship with the rest of the world. At his inauguration, he dwelled on the destructive effects of globalization — “the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.” Last week at Davos, he turned to a more tempered view of America in a more familiar role, as the leading global power, first among equals, but not an island unto itself.

“America first does not mean America alone,” he said. “America is open for business, and we are competitive once again.”

A year ago, Trump devoted by far the biggest chunk of his first address to Congress to the push to repeal “Obamacare,” a drive that foundered in the first months of his presidency.

On Tuesday night, he made only a brief mention of health care, claiming victory where his administration failed on one of its primary goals: “We repealed the core of disastrous Obamacare — the individual mandate is now gone,” he said. And then he departed from his prepared text for the first time in the evening: “Thank heaven.”

In some ways, Trump began his turn away from his campaign rhetoric immediately upon taking office. Candidate Trump made his mark on immigration, with his trademark call for construction of a wall along the Mexican border and his promise that Mexico would pay for it. But when it came time for his first formal addresses — the inaugural and his first visit to Congress — there was no mention of a wall at all.

On Tuesday night, Trump mentioned the wall once but without any reference to Mexico.

Trump has never been an eloquent orator. He has poked fun at politicians who crafted their speeches with artisanal care and read scripts off a teleprompter. He has boasted about riffing for hours at rallies off notes on an envelope, about “writing” his books by talking to a ghostwriter for a few hours. He has long argued that plain, everyday language and simple ideas will beat hifalutin rhetoric any day of the week.

And Trump often appears much more comfortable with a salesman’s hyperbole than with a statesman’s caution.

“Dying industries will come roaring back to life,” he said a year ago, his chest out, his jaw jutting. “Our terrible drug epidemic will … ultimately stop.”

On Tuesday night, he made no such guarantee. After a year of the reality of being president, he tempered that promise.

“The struggle,” he said, “will be long and difficult.”

Marc Fisher is a Washington Post senior editor.

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