The past few months have witnessed a U.S. commander-in-chief who is outspoken and brash, and who often contradicts himself and his staff. Often, it’s due to his off-the-cuff remarks, causing his administration to scramble and rewrite official talking points. His dismissal of his opponents, from the media to the “swamp of DC” and, in a nutshell, anyone who didn’t vote for him, has mostly energized them to speak out. The upshot? His uninspired rhetoric has caused many to be inspired to speak up against his policies.
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But the traveling U.S. President Donald Trump is a different president abroad than he has been at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the past four months. Beyond the strict schedule (which does not include stops at Mar-A-Lago, strangely enough) and the unfamiliar protocol (He was overheard asking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu what the protocol called for, to which the latter admitted he himself did not know), a faint understanding exists that Donald J. Trump, the leader of the free world, has a golden opportunity to shape his foreign policy doctrine and gain the support of fellow world leaders. Surely, when he meets Pope Francis in the Vatican he won’t call him disgraceful as he did on the campaign trail, after the Pope was critical of Trump’s plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
Still, given the extremely low bar set by President Donald Trump, many pundits have completely rewritten their standards, leading to their praise of his rhetoric on the road. His 33-minute speech in Saudi Arabia was called “moderate,” and which Trump himself characterized as “a message of friendship and hope.”
It would be foolish to mark this as a pivot in Trump’s rhetoric. The newly uninspired among us shrug it off as a successful attempt by the Trump White House staff to get him back on script without any of his characteristic outbursts. Yes, for a full 33 minutes Trump managed to deliver a speech that was civil. His choice of words was meticulously written for him, a great departure from the divisive rhetoric and failed policy changes against Islam throughout his candidacy and well into his presidency.
Candidate Trump would never have acknowledged that “this is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it,” as he did in Riyadh. His Islamophobic outbursts when seeking office showed no trace in his remarks as Mr. President, as he declared Islam to be “one of the greatest faiths in the world.”
The grandeur of the visit in Saudi Arabia, together with the somewhat presidential speech, begs a comparison to former U.S. President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech. Much of what Trump said this week in Saudi Arabia echoed the messages the Obama administration wore on their sleeve since the 2008 speech, and served as a mantra for the “Yes We Can” generation. But it was what Trump didn’t say that highlights the immense difference between the two: Trump’s speech was lacking in words such as “democracy” and “human rights,” both basic foundations of the United States. Where Obama sought to unite through similar values, Trump opted for a lower common denominator: rhetoric focusing on variations of “us versus them.”
His first 24 hours in Israel similarly stuck to the script. The rhetoric was words glowing with praise for the country, with a strong emphasis on the unshakeable U.S.-Israel bond and the beauty and history of Jerusalem (without mentioning, one should note, that it is the capital!). But the one word Trump repeated during his visit, and did not shy away from, is the word peace.
Peace has been on the U.S. State Department’s, and every administration's, table forever, but the last U.S. administration grew weary of the prospect and decreased its emphasis not only of the term, but the rhetoric around it. Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry were labeled “messianic” when they pumped out the message, but when Trump uses it, and his use of the “P” word was numerous during his day in Israel, it commands both the Israelis and Palestinians to listen up. It commands the uninspired to rethink their stance: is this what this region needed? A president so far off from the establishment, whether liberal or conservative, to shake things up?
Even before his first day in Israel, Trump has stated, loud and clear, that Israeli-Palestinian peace is high on his agenda, famously drawing the analogy to a business deal. In his Israel Museum speech on Tuesday, he made a point of not delving into policy details such as the two-state solution, and instead strung together ambiguous clichés about the importance of peace. Notably, he did point out his successful meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, essentially legitimizing his leadership and citing him as a worthy partner to peace. While Netanyahu was surely beaming from ear to ear from the love showered on to him by Trump, this minor anecdote in the his speech made it loud and clear: Donald J. Trump will push for a deal.
Where his predecessor shined in his inspirational oration, Trump fumbled to keep up with the teleprompter, often inserting a “beautiful” or an “amazing” in places where he felt the need to ad lib (even adding it in his note in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial). The whole structure of the speech – going from the beauty of Jerusalem, to children growing up in terror, to calling on his friend “Benjamin” and then all over again (with 11 mentions of God) – felt as though the president’s speechwriter(s) copied and pasted similar themes throughout and hoped for the best. Nevertheless, the speech itself was geared toward Netanyahu, a gesture of goodwill, and most definitely strengthened Trump’s base back home. Seeing their president speak in such continuously religious terms about the Holy Land surely was a success for many in the far-right U.S. audience.
The question remains, and this is something that is keeping every current White House policy adviser up at night, is whether President Trump can actually move the needle when it comes to real policy in the region. But more so, it leaves the uninspired questioning whether Trump’s lack of inspirational rhetoric, and his tendency to uninspire, may actually be the brash rhetoric that could fuel a process that many buried deep long ago.