What Trump's July 4 speech revealed, beyond his words

Pay no attention to the words. They were awful.

After a week of controversy over the cost, over whether or not he would attack his enemies, or whether America really needed a salute to the military, President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech MORE delivered a July 4 speech full of clichés and platitudes — “for Americans, nothing is impossible … Americans take care of each other” — and managed something rare for Trump. His words bored us.

But the reaction from Trump’s critics wasn't any better. “Nothing more than a salute to Trump’s massive ego” read the headline on a column by the Washington Post’s usually reasonable Eugene Robinson. “Missing,” Robinson wrote, “was any sense of humility.”

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Actually, one might think that President Trump showed too much humility. His speech almost entirely offered a series of tributes to others. More important than a mistake about Trump’s speech, though, was Robinson’s mistake about Trump: He is not the ego-driven caricature his enemies believe. Trump’s performance succeeded — not from what people heard, but from what they saw.

In part, we know that because it squares with what’s become clear in the past few months. The president knows what lies ahead. He may ignore his advisers, but he hears the attacks on him for being cruel, for abandoning promises such as those about health care, for lying about his past and caring only about placating the thousands who mob his rallies.

He is willing to shore up where he is weak.

You think he wants Americans believing him to be cruel? Then why orchestrate an “attack” on Iran, and then cancel it because of the deaths it might cause? “Not proportionate,” he said afterward.

You think he’s deserted those worried about the high cost of drugs? Look at his fury at Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar for (sensibly) blocking his plan to import drugs from Canada. He will release a health care plan. On paper it will sound good. 

You think he’s a crook? He may be. But undeterred even by his own advisers he is using his attorney general and a panoply of lawyers to shield him from disaster, whether it involves releasing his tax returns or fending off the 29 investigations now under way for federal, state and local crimes.

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And, despite July 4, has anyone noticed how much more comfortable the president is as a speaker than he was in 2016? 

There is no denying his unsupported assertions, misleading statements and lies; they are dangerous. But, aside from content, what do speech coaches like me look for in a good speaker? Commanding appearance, language that people understand, varied voice, expressive arms, skillful use of pause and emphasis. Trump has them all.

Critics sometimes call him “inarticulate.” I’ve given my public-speaking students an assignment where they must imitate Trump. They love it — and learn a lot. He is not inarticulate. 

Neither is it useful for Trump’s opponents to muse about whether Trump has a “personality disorder,” or is “dumb” or limited by his own “bigotry” — all topics of discussion among Democrats.

The truth: The president and his team are clever, sophisticated, and working to make him less vulnerable. 

Democrats have similar work to do. “Can Biden really go toe-to-toe against Trump if a first-term senator just owned him?” asked a Boston Globe columnist after Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisPoll: Buttigieg slips into fourth place as Biden widens lead Yang qualifies for December Democratic debate The media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? MORE (D-Calif.) delivered a well-prepared ambush during the first round of Democratic debates. That was a terrible moment for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Trump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Trump supporters at Pa. rally 'upset' after Democrats introduce impeachment articles MORE, expostulating about an attack for which he had a week to practice. He looked — and sounded — frail. Suddenly, Democrats saw an appealing contest between Trump and Harris, or Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Buttigieg says he doubts consulting work for insurer led to layoffs Trump supporters at Pa. rally 'upset' after Democrats introduce impeachment articles MORE (I-Vt.) or Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Buttigieg says he doubts consulting work for insurer led to layoffs Trump supporters at Pa. rally 'upset' after Democrats introduce impeachment articles MORE (D-Mass.), if not Biden.

Not so fast, Democrats. A more measured look at what’s ahead should include the results of an illuminating Gallup poll from May

“What do Americans not want in a president?” Gallup asked. The answers should worry Democrats, because they point to vulnerability in all four of the above candidates.

For Sanders, the issue is ideology — that is, socialism. He not only declares himself a socialist but gave a recent pugnacious speech defending it. Yet, “socialism” turns out to be what Americans loathe most: 24 percent of Democrats, 48 percent of independents and 80 percent of Republicans say no to a “socialist” president. “Gay or lesbian” finished sixth. Americans would prefer a gay president to a socialist. Nominating Sanders could cost his party 10 million Democrats and 15 million independents. That is a staggeringly high hurdle.

Meanwhile, Warren and Harris should worry about a second set of numbers from the Gallup poll: 9 percent of Republicans, 6 percent of the 31 million independents and 3 percent of the roughly 40 million Democrats would not vote for a woman — even one qualified and from their own party. That means, in an otherwise even race between Warren or Harris and Donald Trump, about 2 million nominal Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents would vote for the man. In races often decided by 1 or 2 percent, that is a huge risk.

Finally, there’s Biden: 37 percent of Americans — just about evenly divided between Democrat, Republican and independent — say they would not vote for a candidate over age 70. Well, Biden and Trump are both over 70. Don’t they cancel each other out?

That question drives home the real lesson from the president's July 4 performance: Donald Trump, schooled in “The Apprentice,” knows that a speech involves more than words. 

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That’s why, painful as it is for this speechwriter to admit, the critics made a mistake by focusing on his words. Despite having to speak behind rain-streaked bulletproof glass, despite his words, and certainly despite his age, Americans heard an energetic man paying tribute to others, powerful enough to order military flyovers and a military band to play.

They saw, in other words, something Trump could do, and what Joe Biden has yet to demonstrate: looking like a president, perfectly capable of serving another four years.

Bob Lehrman, former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, teaches speech writing at American University. He and fellow teacher Eric Schnure have co-authored the soon-to-be-released second edition of “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion” (SAGE, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @RobertLehrman1.