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Eric Fehrnstrom

Trump’s baptism into America’s political religion

Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan applauded as President Trump arrives to deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday.
Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan applauded as President Trump arrives to deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Getty Images)

When it comes to American political speeches, I’m a fan of brevity. Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address registered a bare 703 words. That was as the bloody Civil War was nearing its end.

President Trump is not Abraham Lincoln. His hour-long State of the Union speech Tuesday was as lengthy as those of his predecessors. There was nothing particularly remarkable about it. No words he said will end up etched on a marble monument in Washington.

But what Trump accomplished was what his opponents have so long tried to deny him: his normalization. And he did it using language that Lincoln and other White House occupants would instantly recognize.

This was a positive and upbeat speech that any mainstream Republican could have delivered. This was not the “American carnage” that Trump described in his inaugural speech. Instead he talked about “a new chapter of American greatness.”

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Trump started by condemning a wave of recent hate crimes and ended with a bipartisan call to all Americans to join him in “dreaming big, and bold and daring things for our country.” And what is the Trump agenda? Fair trade, lower taxes for corporations and the middle class, fewer regulations, an Eisenhower-like infrastructure program to rebuild the nation’s transportation networks, a more affordable health care system, and a merit-based immigration system that insists newcomers to the country support themselves financially.

Trump did not provide concrete details on how to pay for his plans to cut taxes and stimulate the American economy. Nor did he offer specifics on the replacement for Obamacare, outside of some general principles for Congress to follow. Like most presidents, Trump is not a policy geek. The fine print will show itself as the legislation takes shape.

The speech was about something more important: Trump’s baptism into America’s political religion.

When Trump said, “We are one people, with one destiny. We all bleed the same blood. We all salute the same flag. And we are all made by the same God,” he was not just subscribing to a sacralized form of patriotism but expressing the values of the nation.

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Trump’s eulogy to US Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, who died in a raid on an Al Qaeda base in Yemen, was emotional and gut-wrenching. With Owens’ wife, Carryn, looking on, Trump said: “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom — we will never forget him.”

Such honors paid to a dead serviceman are not unusual for a commander in chief, but that’s the point. What made it different for Trump is the memory of last year’s ill-advised campaign feud with the parents of fallen US Army Captain Humayun Khan.

Trump started his presidency with a job approval that stands at just 44 percent, according to the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. This is a record low for a newly inaugurated president, but not surprising given the harsh coverage from a media that do not like him. For all his negative press, Trump’s numbers are only slightly below President Obama’s average 47.9 percent approval rating during his time in office.

A post-speech CNN poll had eight of 10 viewers reacting positively to Trump’s speech. It seems likely that Trump’s first, nominal, State of the Union address will mark the start of his ascent into positive territory. The question is, will the good feelings last?

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Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.