What Trump got right

I usually start my American University speech-writing class with a video showing one of the worst political speeches ever given, and then ask: “What did he do wrong?” Students have little trouble answering.

Then I ask: “What did he do right?” Silence — because that means looking beyond the obvious.

But that was the question more commentators should have asked after this week’s State of the Union (SOTU) address. Instead, they focused on the obvious, especially those on the left. “A Terrible State of the Union Speech,” wrote a Mother Jones editor. “A show for Republicans and his base,” wrote a Business Insider reporter. Another reporter described it as a speech for “MAGA nation.”

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The most intense focus came from fact-checkers, not surprisingly, since this State of the Union was as full of Trumpian lies and distortions as ever. Such lies are one reason that, for more than three years, President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE’s approval rating has stayed below 50 percent. One CBS survey of more than 10,000 people found 61 percent of Americans believe Trump tells the truth “sometimes or never.”

But that hasn’t been the president’s only flaw as a speaker. Equally important: his inability to reach out to moderate Americans. That has puzzled me. Is it to please his base? Where else would they go? Is it impossible for Trump to rein himself in?

Yet, on Tuesday night, that was exactly what he did. His speechwriters — mainly Vince Haley and Ross Worthington — created a speech aimed at both his base and moderates. Trump was at least willing to stick to the script.

He didn’t do that in 2016. He hated Teleprompters; he stumbled over words, launched insulting ad-libs, and professed contempt for the whole process. “Isn’t it nice I’m not one of those teleprompter guys?” he said. Even this year, Trump’s rally speeches have been full of the asides, ad-libs and crude jokes that turn off enough voters to make him vulnerable.

Not so on Tuesday. So, what did he get right? Three things:

Delivery. Even in the first minute we see a serious, rehearsed president. Watch Trump’s first pause before he turns to Melania: He utters the words, “the first lady of the United States,” then stops to let the applause start. Or listen to the way he uses pause and emphasis in his unsmiling praise for the United States: “thriving (pause) and highly respected (pause) again.”

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Trump is not just skillful at rousing his base. On Tuesday, he stuck to the script, almost never stumbled, varied his voice much more than usual and sounded at home introducing guests up in the gallery, sincere when invoking God, and passionate when he sought to inspire at the end. When it came to reaching out, listeners heard skillful delivery in the service of something new. 

What he celebrated. In the past, Trump has demonstrated contempt for immigrants and African Americans. On Tuesday, he lauded America for offering promise to “citizens of every race, color, religion and creed.” 

Has he sided with the rich and ridiculed the poor? Yes — but on Tuesday he told 45 million listeners, “Poverty is plummeting … the unemployment rate is the lowest in over half a century … the unemployment rates for African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans have reached the lowest levels in history.”

Doesn’t he hate unions? Well, this time he called his administration “relentlessly pro-worker.” 

Has he exhibited contempt for women? Yes — but, he proudly announced, “women filled 72 percent of all new jobs added” to the economy last year.

Does this mean Trump is saying what he means? I have no idea. But for those who tell pollsters that beating Donald Trump is more important to them than who replaces Trump, it’s as dangerous to discount his abilities as it was last week for the San Francisco 49ers to discount young Patrick Mahomes.

How he celebrated. Lest you think Tuesday’s speech was a dry recitation of facts, Trump used story elements to move listeners in a new way. “Story” is relatively recent in political speech — and is one reason such political speeches have been so dull. It wasn’t until 1982 that President Reagan used the story of Lenny Skutnik to move and inspire SOTU listeners. Since then, it has become a tradition for presidents to include at least one human story.

In his SOTU speech, Trump used 10 such examples, lacing each with enough detail to move listeners. His method was simple: He stated a problem, illustrated it with the story of a real person — and then, this former producer and star of “The Apprentice” went further.

Take his pledge to “safeguard American liberty.” Trump described one accomplishment, the creation of the “new branch of the United States Armed Forces, the Space Force.” Then came a story: “In the gallery tonight, we have one of the Space Force’s youngest potential recruits: 13-year-old Iain Lanphier, an eighth-grader from Arizona.”

Cut to Iain in the gallery; the kid looked sober, responsible. Trump told us that Iain wants to go to the Air Force Academy, then join the Space Force. And then he offered a surprise: Sitting next to Iain, Trump told us, is “his great hero,” Charles McGee, one of the last “surviving Tuskegee Airmen — the first black fighter pilots … and Iain’s great-grandfather.” McGee, age 100, and Iain stood to great applause.

And then, Trump went another step further. He announced that he had promoted McGee to brigadier general: “Earlier today, I pinned the stars on his shoulders in the Oval Office.” He not only celebrated a black family but he rewarded them. 

As his speech rolled on, Trump illustrated each accomplishment with a story: Janihah Davis, a fourth-grader, and her single mom; Ellie Schneider, born prematurely but now a healthy 2-year-old; Amy Williams, whose husband was stationed in Afghanistan while she stayed at Fort Bragg with their two children.

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For each, Trump had a surprise. For Amy? The door to the House Gallery opened and down the steps came her husband; Trump had brought him home.

Hokey? Manipulative? Sure. There was certainly a lot to make his base happy. Not every story is about a black family or single mom, but Trump told those stories well. Even some Democrats joined the swelling applause. 

Before you click to the comments section, armed with an insult, let me be clear: Democrats shouldn’t minimize any of the lies that President Trump has told. They should lambast his atrocious beliefs about taxes, immigrants, health care, or anything else.

But Democrats will win only if they see Trump for what he is: a shrewd opponent, more skillful than he lets on. Listening to CNN commentators after Tuesday’s speech, I was surprised to hear the usually perceptive Jim AcostaJames (Jim) AcostaRed flags fly high, but Trump ignores them Hillicon Valley: Justice Department announces superseding indictment against WikiLeaks' Assange | Facebook ad boycott gains momentum | FBI sees spike in coronavirus-related cyber threats | Boston city government bans facial recognition technology Twitter permanently suspends account behind doctored video shared by Trump MORE say, “This is a state-of-the-base speech,” and then quote a Trump aide who felt that by not shaking House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Bass on filling Harris's Senate spot: 'I'll keep all my options open' Win by QAnon believer creates new headaches for House GOP MORE’s hand, Trump “missed an opportunity.”

I don’t agree. Trump grabbed an opportunity. With 45 million people watching, he reached beyond his base, and did so with skill.

Nobody can predict whether the president will make this a habit. Still, this week’s most important event won’t have been an app failure in Iowa, or even the impeachment vote, which surprised no one. Instead, it may be this speech. It showed that he can reach out. With a second term on the line, the president can cut out the insults, practice until he’s prepared, sound like he cares about people who are black and poor — and deceive moderates into thinking he is a president they should reelect.

Bob Lehrman, the chief speechwriter for former vice president Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreWillie Brown now pleased Harris accepted Biden offer after advising against it Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause Will Pence choose partisanship over statesmanship in counting ballots? MORE, teaches speechwriting at American University in Washington. He has authored four novels and thousands of speeches, and given speechwriting workshops around the world. He wrote “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion,” recently released in a second edition, this time with collaborator and co-teacher, Eric Schnure. Follow him on Twitter @RobertLehrman1.