If, as it is said, an infinite number of monkeys pounding on an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce "Hamlet," then sooner or later Donald Trump was going to deliver an inoffensive speech. By nearly universal agreement, he did so Friday at Davos, but the speech was highly notable in only one respect: It contained no bombastic lie.
Sometimes the thin air of the Swiss Alps can have an odd effect. The participants at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos inhaled and sank to their knees in obeisance to Trump. From all reports, he was treated with dignity, which is much more than he deserved. In a just world, he would suffer constant rebuke.
Apparently, there was no appropriate response from the nations Trump so recently insulted; y'know, the ones he likened to a "shithole." Mexico, which he considers the home of so many rapists, was also officially mum. As for the Chinese, they were quietly eating Trump's lunch, signing up the very businesses Trump was beckoning his way. "America is open for business," Trump declared. This was a dim rehash of Calvin Coolidge's declaration that "The chief business of the American people is business." Not long after "Silent Cal" left office, that business went bust. The Great Depression hit.
Coolidge was a caricature of New England rectitude and so repressed that when he died, the humorist Dorothy Parker reportedly cracked, "How can they tell?" Trump has none of those qualities. But the speech he gave was in the Chamber of Commerce mode often favored by laissez-faire Republicans. It extolled business but was silent on the political movements swirling all around him in Europe -- the threat to human rights and the challenge of how to deal with immigrants and refugees.
This, of course, is an area where Trump has not been silent. He has, in fact, bristled his antipathy toward immigrant groups, riding a wave of xenophobia straight into the White House. He has denigrated certain immigrants -- Mexicans, in particular -- and too often shot the cuffs of a racism that is usually obscured. At Davos, he boasted of a low unemployment rate for African-Americans (6.8 percent), but it had already been descending under Barack Obama. Besides, even if the number were zero, Trump would hardly be beloved in the black community. He has an attitude problem.
Trump made no mention of Viktor Orban's regime in Hungary, which is trending toward the despotic and, with its ugly attacks on American investor George Soros, the anti-Semitic. Trump also took no notice of Poland, which is gleefully resurrecting its authoritarian, intolerant past and airbrushing, in Stalinist style, the achievements of Lech Walesa, its Nobel laureate in peace. (The government should read another of Poland's Nobel laureates, Czeslaw Milosz, whose poem about how the 1943 burning of Warsaw's Jewish Ghetto was watched with glee by many Poles.)
The Czech Republic, once gloriously personified by Vaclav Havel, is now obsessed with a supposed immigrant threat, and was not mentioned by Trump either. Silence, too, was accorded to the appalling human rights conditions of Yemen and Myanmar. The harsh fact is that Trump doesn't have the moral standing to lecture anyone. As an American president, he's not yet a failure. He is, though, a disgrace.
The leadership role Trump proclaimed in Davos is a chimera. The U.S. economy is growing no faster than those of other industrialized nations -- and slower than some, such as India and China. All in all, Trump acted as if he had not been preceded by eight years of Obama. The results he took credit for were largely the consequence of trends established by his predecessor. The now-chugging economy, the decline of unemployment -- all of this was due to Obama's economic policies. So, too, is the virtual defeat of the Islamic State, which Trump mentioned at Davos.
No doubt the White House is capable of producing a speech that does not, like Trump's inaugural, suggest it had been written by someone off his meds. And no doubt Trump can -- with almost life-threating self-restraint -- deliver a speech and not, in some moment of heated inspiration, veer off-message into the gutter. But even a Lincolnesque address would not, at this point, redeem Trump. He is a thoroughly corrupt man -- a liar, a chiseler, a bully and an emotional infant. The praise he got at Davos from some journalists and others will soon seem silly. A New Trump is not possible. The speech was just a rhetorical comb-over.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com.
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