Sightings of Donald J. Trump looking and sounding presidential are almost as rare as solar eclipses, so let’s put our special glasses back on to see what we can make of his prime-time speech on America’s endless war in Afghanistan. Interestingly, he offered virtually no specifics about the new troop commitments he’s grudgingly agreed to after balking early on at the Pentagon brass’s advice. The point was to make us privy to his ostensible thinking, including a very uncharacteristic acknowledgment that he’s changed his mind about just getting the hell out of that quagmire of a country.
In other words, this was Trump’s belated audition for the dignified role of a prudent, responsible Commander-in-Chief—an exponent of “principled realism,” as he put it, who isn’t going to kid us about what is and isn’t possible there.
It was also his chance to make overdue amends for aiding and abetting America’s white supremacists after Charlottesville. Since this was supposedly a policy speech, the long preamble that praised the U.S. military for transcending “every line of race, ethnicity, creed and color to serve together and sacrifice together” and went on to declare that “When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry and no tolerance for hate” would have been utterly mystifying if everyone watching hadn’t been aware of the stinkpot right offstage whose smell Trump was trying to douse in “with malice toward none” perfume. If nothing else, this must have made David Duke’s and Richard Spencer’s cohorts feel, no matter how briefly, like something the cat dragged in, and that’s never bad news.
Trump’s rare experiments with acting presidential are always temporary lapses.
If the scream Washingtonians no doubt heard in the night signaled Steve Bannon’s discovery that his leprous nose has finally said adios to the rest of his face, that’s not a bad thing either. It didn’t take Jim Mattis, John F. Kelly and H.R. McMaster long to demonstrate they’re in the saddle now that he’s gone, did it? The speech had McMaster’s fingerprints all over it, because its tone of flinty, battle-tested experience and lucid pragmatism sure doesn’t belong to Trump. In fact, it fit him about as well as a nun’s habit, so it’s no wonder that he sometimes looked slightly incredulous at the words coming out of his mouth.
Even so, whoever wrote the speech is definitely not dumb. The trick of making Trump seem less than completely preposterous in this sobersided role was to toss in just enough familiar Trumpisms—the reference to “losers,” the vanity-mirror aside that “historically, I like following my instincts,” the hyperbolic interjection that “we will always win"—to make him sound as if he hadn’t had a complete personality transplant overnight. He read a lot of the speech badly, the way he always does when he’s working with a Teleprompter instead of obeying the spontaneous cues of his dizzily unpredictable brain. But a dull Donald Trump is infinitely more palatable than the clown-car version.
In policy terms, one major shift was his willingness to put the "bad” back in Islamabad. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama felt obliged to keep up the pretense that Pakistan was our loyal ally in the war on terror, not a haven for terrorists, not least because it was so difficult to explain to the public that Pakistan is both of those things simultaneously. But the charade has always been exasperating, making Trump’s bluntness about how this “valued partner” has also “sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people” a welcome break from timidity. What made it less than foolhardy was the quick follow-up of proposing a new partnership with India, because nothing is likelier to get Pakistan to make nice than the prospect of U.S. cozying up to its perpetual regional enemy—and fellow nuclear power, as Trump took care to note.
Here comes the key question: Did any of this shrewd Realpolitik sound remotely like the loose-cannon Donald J. Trump we know and have come to dread? Of course not. Make no mistake, his Afghanistan speech was a victory for the so-called Deep State, and Bannon’s instant fury at the fact—"This was about the swamp getting to [Trump],“ one Breitbart writer accurately opined—is one reason it’s likely to be an awfully temporary one. Getting hit with brickbats for selling out to the Establishment is sure to provoke Trucky McTrumpface to say or do something crazy and perverse to prove he’s not its captive, and then we’ll be right back in crackpot-circus territory again. Most likely, Mattis, Kelly and McMaster knew this going in but decided it was worth it for the sake of getting the Afghanistan policy they wanted. Now it can go back to being "the forgotten war” but on their terms, not Trump’s.
Even without Breitbart hounding him, you just know we’re only a Tweetstorm (or tonight’s rally in Arizona) away from a return to chaos. By now, we’ve all learned that Trump’s rare experiments with acting presidential are always temporary lapses. Invariably, he feels like he got bullied into betraying his true nature, and ultimately, he’d rather be Trump than president. Even without Robert Mueller hounding him, we can only hope the day comes soon when he decides he can’t be both and packs his gilded bags.