Donald Trump seemed more compassionate, courteous and restrained during his State of the Union address than he did in his ever-more egregious exchanges with the mayor of Charlottesville, Va., for an extended time last year.
The president also seemed to be in search of something positive: a more nuanced, thoughtful and forgiving outlook for himself and his potential ends.
But as is all too common, the president had succumbed to ambition and he set out to launch into his favorite mode — the language of “authenticity” and “radical love.”
I mean, he didn’t say “conscience,” but “moral impulse.”
He said, “The moral challenge of our time is to transform our politics.”
He didn’t say “anger,” but “pathic passion.”
He said, “I would put radical love at the very top of the list.”
Some people say Trump is “alone,” as though there were only one person holding all the power in the world.
Others say that in our angst, we can only find anger and fear and hate.
In truth, Trump is not alone. If he was alone, he’d be thankful.
He’s part of a crew of self-styled saviors, urbanists, industrialists, corporate titans and others with grandiose aspirations. And they have taken a majority of American politicians and kept them tightly in line.
In his introductory remarks, Warren Buffett described the Trump tax cuts as “the biggest giveaway ever given to the rich and powerful, and it will undermine our economy.”
It’s true that those tax cuts haven’t worked as advertised for many of those who benefitted. The Trump plan may have lost as many as 2 million jobs since President Trump assumed office.
But it wasn’t working for America in general.
It was still working.
In the same way, turning away from Washington — and from the political power that is a byproduct of being in office — is not a function of lack of intelligence or inability to engage.
It’s a moral choice — perhaps the single most important moral choice facing us.
Why is America still doing well in an age of global competition and an unstable power structure?
Because, for the president of the United States, in the 40-plus years since his father took power, America has remained largely free from the despairing and externally driven decisions that constrain so many other societies, from Europe to Asia.
For an economy in which spending is ever-growing, and when working together offers so much more than competition does alone, it is tough to take to the extremes of populism and nationalism.
No government has the wisdom or ability to bring the two sides together. Even when it does achieve some small progress, like easing trade restrictions and pushing for stiffer visa requirements, opponents can point to a too-late victory.
What happens next? Today, we face a fiscal crisis of the kind that Europe and Japan faced two decades ago.
Massive national debts limit further deficit-cutting and increase the possibility of high borrowing costs for the nation’s capital. If this threat is not addressed sooner rather than later, we risk not only the viability of the US bond market but also the durability of our country’s system of representative government.
Reforming the US political system from within is nearly impossible if Republicans don’t willingly hand control of the House and Senate to Democrats. Both sides are eager to do so — the key question is whether they can agree.
Some of America’s greatest achievements have stemmed from its diversity, intellectual and moral complexity, and (more than anything) the intermingling of its many communities.
Lately, Donald Trump has taken his blinders off and placed his brain back on. But he has done so at the expense of our faith in his professed dedication to furthering America’s middle class by ending our expansive reliance on unlimited imports of steel and aluminum.
He hasn’t just spoken disparagingly of “trade wars” — he has actually embarked on such a war.
We can avert the worst of this. The marketplace doesn’t need more Chinese steel. Its foundation is well-maintained, thanks to multilateralist trade agreements, the United States’ manufacturing sector, and our own infrastructure.
The president knows this. And America needs its president to know this, too.
Gregg Easterbrook is a columnist for The Atlantic.