Donald Trump alone in the Oval Office, a little less orange than usual and looking deadpan into the cameras. He was not really alone, that’s only the image presented to us, there were camera crews and aides and a teleprompter. Outside, photographers lurked like prowlers in the Washington darkness to snag a picture of the president’s profile through the window.
All three of the papers have run the Oval Office address on their front page, all of them above the fold. The New York Times has a photo of migrants in Tijuana watching Trump address a nation where he is saying they are not welcome. The Wall Street Journal has Trump in the office, his hands frozen like he’s about to grab something, probably something he has no business getting his fingers into. And The Washington Post has a photo snapped by one of those prowlers, the president frozen and framed through the window of the Oval Office. The blurred portrait of Andrew Jackson above him in the middle distance.
When a president appears alone in the Oval Office it’s done to present the feeling that he is speaking directly to you, his fellow American. He is inside your home, and he’s speaking slowly, and he’s seated at the Resolute Desk because we’re about to get very deep into something very serious so you’d better be sitting down for this. In terms of optics, Trump’s first primetime Oval Office address was successful.
When a president appears alone in the Oval Office it’s done to present the feeling that he is speaking directly to you, his fellow American.
The first half of the address was a light bit of nonsense policy but at least it gave us something to nail down: He still wants $5.7 billion for his wall. There was a line about migration on the southern border being “a crisis of the soul”—which I can only imagine is the result of Stephen Miller reading a dozen William Blake poems and trying to cough the imagery back up into a teleprompter.
The darker imagery followed, and Miller (or whomever penned this speech) relied on anecdotes. First, the president tells you about a police officer in California who was murdered by an undocumented immigrant on Christmas. Then you learn that an undocumented immigrant in Georgia is charged with murder. Then he says MS-13 members in Maryland beat and stabbed a 16-year-old girl. He tells you where each of these things happened, a place where you know somebody or where your father grew up. Then he distills it, saying “How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?”
Christ, you’re weeping, they’re everywhere! They’re probably scaling the Statue of Liberty to make off with the torch, and somehow they’ve managed to break onto the set of The Andy Griffith Show, and they’ve got the townspeople barricaded in their bathrooms. But Donald Trump is here, in your home, and he’s going to save you and the rest of the American blood. His lesson in division finished, Trump disappeared. The television cut to robotic speeches delivered by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
Oval Office addresses are made to explain to the nation what is happening in a moment of emergency, either real or imagined—Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Bush on 9/11. Trump’s emergency was imagined. The number of undocumented immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol hovered near 400,000 in 2018. In 2000, that number was more than 1.6 million in 2001.
Oval Office addresses are made to explain to the nation what is happening in a moment of emergency, either real or imagined. Trump’s emergency was imagined.
Ahead of the midterms, President Trump’s campaign rolled out an ad that juxtaposed courtroom scenes of a murderer with images of migrants moving through Mexico. The networks refused to air it because it was so nakedly racist. But on Tuesday night, they gave that same message for nine minutes on primetime national television.
The message of the wall was a small part of the president’s speech on Tuesday night, most Americans will probably have a tough time remembering exactly what he said about it. But they will remember the descriptions of the crimes committed at the hands of undocumented immigrants, and maybe they will reconsider their neighbor who looks like the perpetrators in those descriptions. The pathos appeal in Trump’s speech was not meant to make us fearful of our neighbors, that’s only a side effect. It was meant to make us fearful of immigrants, the sort that you can keep out with a wall. The sort that Donald Trump promised to protect you from in 2016 and that he will promise to protect you from in 2020.
We’ve come a long way from moment when Donald Trump announced his presidency by saying of Mexicans “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” But the message has never changed, only the setting. In 2015, it was the lobby of Trump Tower but on Tuesday night, Donald Trump was in your living room and he was telling you, his fellow American, that there are bad, brown men around, and he’s going to keep them away.