Trump played nice for a night—a technique straight out of the autocrat’s playbook

"America First"
"America First"

Last night, US president Donald Trump gave what was, by the eroded current standards of American political discourse, a very good speech. It was a very good speech full of very big lies and very cruel policies disguised as empathy.

Dutifully reading off a teleprompter, Trump made promises—like greater rights for women and clean air and water—that are countered by his actual policies. He explained that he would combat crises, like a soaring murder rate, that do not actually exist. He framed the scapegoating of immigrants as a palliative to job loss and crime, shamelessly using people who have lost loved ones as human props. For the first time since taking office, Trump addressed, for a mere minute, the wave of hate crimes that began when he launched his campaign. He spoke calmly and competently and was therefore praised by pundits like Van Jones, Wolf Biltzer, Anderson Cooper, and Chris Wallace.

And yet, it is possible that by the time you read this Trump will have delivered another unconstitutional executive order, or criticized (once again) the media who have set the bar so low that they run the risk of tripping on it. Perhaps another mosque will be burned or a Jewish community center threatened. Actions speak louder than words, and Trump’s speech is ultimately just another embarrassing exhibit in how wishful thinking will keep this burgeoning American autocracy afloat.

When advance copies of the speech indicated that Trump was not planning to rhapsodize about nuclear weapons or designate the press the “enemy of the people,” pundits once again speculated that a presidential “pivot” was at hand. But this pivot, which has been a subject of media speculation for months, remains an illusion: Trump never intended to pivot, but rather to pivot America to his extremist goals. In some ways he has already succeeded, as white supremacists like Steve Bannon dominate the White House, and expectations for accountability—the release of tax returns, cooperation with the investigation into Russian meddling—have been lowered.

America is pivoting towards Trump, and it is only through vigilance and compassion that we can pivot back.

If the last 40 days have taught Americans anything, it is that Trump still intends to fulfill his most outrageous promises: the ones frequently dismissed as unconstitutional or untenable during his campaign. The wall against Mexico, both an ego monument and an actual barrier that will rip families apart, is in the works, although Mexico’s refusal to pay for it means it will likely fall to taxpayers to pick up the bill. The Muslim ban has actually happened, causing innocent people to be stranded and interrogated based on their faith or birthplace.

With Trump, the worst not only can happen, it tends to be announced in advance. This is why you should listen when Trump does things like propose to expand our nuclear arsenal after remarking “If we have them, why can’t we use them?” Rose-colored glasses will not prevent you from seeing a mushroom cloud.

So do not let yourself be soothed by a well-written speech, the sole reassuring feature of which was debunking the viral rumor that Trump cannot read. There will be speeches in the months to come that are far more deserving of your attention. Like the speech from an ICE agent to the child of illegal immigrants, explaining that her parents are being taken away. The speech from a border patrol agent to a Muslim tourist, accusing him of terrorism and banning him from entry. The speech from a doctor to her patient, explaining that his illness will drive him into bankruptcy thanks to the elimination of the Affordable Care Act. The speech from a rabbi to his congregation, expressing anguish over yet another desecrated grave. The speeches from mothers around the country to their children, telling them not to drink the water because it is poisoned after the repeal of environmental regulations.

And the speech that a Trump administration official will give later in response to all these speeches, deeming them “alternative facts” or “fake news.”

Trump launched his campaign with lies—slandering Mexicans as rapists and criminals—and has continued to lie ever since. The only variation is the degree of cruelty with which he delivers his propaganda. Last night we saw the “nice Trump,” but this more subdued president is in a sense more dangerous than the unhinged and ranting version we saw at a press conference two weeks ago. This Trump seems to offer reprieve from the chaos his administration has wrought. And the desire of Americans for things to “go back to normal” is so strong that willful amnesia as to the Trump administration’s prior actions is the knee-jerk reaction to a sliver of kindness.

The impulse to forget is forgivable, but acting on it is not. Every autocrat flirts with benevolence, promoting themselves as the sole protector against threats, the strongman who remembers “the forgotten people.” Trump is actually worse at this game than most authoritarian leaders due to his erratic temperament, leak-prone staff, and combative relationship with the US press. Last night he played the game well.

But there is only one winner in an autocratic state: the autocrat and his lackeys. Citizens function as pawns and props, conned into complicity until their regret carries no weight. The US currently has an authoritarian-leaning government but is not yet an authoritarian regime, due in large part to the constant vigilance and pushback of citizens. If you seek to stop the slide into authoritarianism, do not let yourself get played.

You can follow Sarah on Twitter at @sarahkendzior. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at

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