Maureen Dowd: ‘Normal’ Trump is even more frightening
George W Bush’s return to the public stage shows just how far likability can get you
US president Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Photograph: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
And a huge sigh of relief went up in the land. The mad king could stay on script long enough to fake normality. The truculent sovereign could be yanked away, for a blessed hour, from Twitter to a teleprompter.
He could emerge from his dystopian, carnivorous man cave, guarded by the fanged two-headed Stephenbeast of Bannon and Miller, and condemn the hate he spent so long stirring up.
Liberal pundits were nonplussed by the shock of the president using his “indoor voice”, as he traded the cudgel of “American carnage” for “the torch of truth, liberty and justice” in his maiden speech to Congress.
For a moment, at least, the shrieking chorus dimmed, the demands that Donald Trump be put in a straitjacket and that the 25th Amendment be invoked quieted down.
Trump was at long last conforming, and following the norms of Washington. And that always pleases Washington.
He didn’t let the usual barrage of petty insults fly or indulge in his loony lovey-dovey talk about the lethal Vladimir Putin.
Liberal CNN commentator Van Jones was effusive in praising Trump for his paean to Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL who died in the first counterterrorism mission hastily authorised by the new president.
“He became president of the United States in that moment, period,” Jones said, calling it “one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period”.
The emperor of chaos was able to muster 60 minutes 14 seconds of non-embarrassing behaviour before we were all ensnared once more in the bizarre and venal Russian subplot of the Trump presidency and another Twitter onslaught against Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi for having held meetings with Russians.
What is the moral of this? That if you talk more like a Washington insider than a barbarian at the gate, you’re more likely to persuade people to raise the gate and let you do whatever you want, no matter how alarming or perfidious. Trump critics resist in real time, wide-awake to dangers.
By contrast, the public and press belatedly woke up to Dick Cheney’s demented fake news plot on Iraq because Cheney was a known known, a Washington player with a capital boys’ club résumé and soothing headmaster’s voice.
Ordinarily, Trump enjoys plots, gossip and subterranean deals. But now he is frustrated by his rocky debut and increasingly paranoid about what he sees as the Vast Deep-State Conspiracy.
When he froths about crowd size like a bus-and-truck Caine Mutiny, when he compares the intelligence community to Nazi Germany and labels the press “the enemy of the American people”, when he insists that black is white and night is day and makes up whoppers about voter fraud, the body politic’s defences go up on alert against the Trump virus.
But when he behaves more normally, the guard comes down. It’s an optical delusion. People get terrified by Crazy Trump.
But really, that makes it easier to fight back, because we see the crazy right out there on Twitter.
People were relieved at Calm Trump. But really, that’s more potentially dangerous, because if he learns how to behave in a more measured, charming way on the surface, he can put a disarming face on harsh policies or duplicitous practices.
If he seems less like a mad man aiming to rip everything apart, he can more easily rip everything apart.
When I asked Silicon Valley mogul and Trump adviser Peter Thiel recently if he was worried about Trump appointing heads of agencies who wanted to blow up those agencies, the contrarian replied that I had it backward.
“If you actually want to change things in DC, who should you appoint?” he said.
“Maybe if you appoint someone who says, ‘I want to shut down this whole agency,’ then that person will just have to deal with a staff revolt. And everybody will ignore their orders for three or four years.
“So I think, in theory, to probably change things the most, it’s better if you appoint someone who sounds like they’re not that controversial but then will just really work at changing things.”
As W ambled back on to the public stage a few days ago, promoting his new book of paintings and stories, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, we had a vivid illustration of how far likability can get you.
When Jimmy Fallon ruffled Trump’s hair during the campaign, it was treated as a hideous breach, normalising the invading vulgarian.
But when Jimmy Kimmel joked with W on Thursday night, the audience reacted warmly.
Compared to Trump, it was like W was the soul of decency and self-deprecation, on his way to Mount Rushmore.
So does it really matter that his policies helped contribute to the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression and the worst foreign policy blunder in US history?
Chatting about the Oscar flub, Kimmel noted that W had also been “involved in many notable faux pas”, as W laughed.
“Mission accomplished,” W replied, smirking.
It’s still too soon to laugh about “Mission Accomplished”, especially when peddling anguished portraits of wounded veterans.
In fact, it will always be too soon to laugh about “Mission Accomplished”.