WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 28: U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress as Vice President Mike Pence (L) and House Speaker...
Chip Somodevilla

Reality continues to dog Trump during his first address to Congress

Expectations can shape perceptions in unhelpful ways. I remember ahead of the first presidential debate last fall, the consensus throughout much of the political world was that Donald Trump practically couldn’t lose: all he had to do was show up, remain clothed, repeat banal and scripted talking points, avoid incidents of physical violence, and wait for pundits to say he “exceeded expectations” and appeared “more presidential than usual.”

As it turned out, the Republican failed to clear this low bar, and he ended up looking ridiculous at the debate anyway, but all of this came to mind again last night ahead of Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress. Given the president’s propensity for bizarre behavior and offensive antics, the expectations couldn’t have been much lower.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 2/28/17, 11:04 PM ET

Maddow: Trump disconnected from his own policies as president

Rachel Maddow discusses with an MSNBC panel what accounts for the disconnect between what Donald Trump says unscripted and in interviews and what Donald Trump reads from teleprompters and signs into law.
Rachel Maddow discusses with an MSNBC panel what accounts for the disconnect between what Donald Trump says unscripted and in interviews and what Donald Trump reads from teleprompters and signs into law.
And with that in mind, Trump managed to stick to the bland script put in front of him and resist his most self-destructive impulses. By the time the dust settled, this alone was enough to dazzle much of the political world, which has come to expect – and often receive – worse than it expected.

But if we evaluate Trump as a president, instead of comparing him to himself, his national address offered more of a sugar high than political sustenance.

The root of Trump’s troubles continues to be his disconnect with reality. As an electoral matter, he boasted about the “earthquake” that elevated him to the White House, failing to appreciate the fact that he received nearly 3 million fewer votes than his opponent, and he entered the chamber last night as the least popular new president since the dawn of American polling.

As a matter of accuracy, Trump lied, repeatedly, about matters large and small. As a rhetorical matter, it was hard not to laugh at assertions such as, “The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us.” This from the man who obsesses over crowd sizes and “Saturday Night Live” skits that hurt his feelings.

And as a substantive matter, the Republican president seemed confused about what last night’s address was even supposed to accomplish.

One of the knocks on Trump’s candidacy was its dependence on post-policy, substance-free palaver. The GOP candidate promised voters everything, without the slightest interest in articulating, or even understanding, how he might deliver on unrealistic goals. Now that the election is over, Trump continues to rely on post-policy, substance-free palaver, using his grandiose platform last night to talk about all of the things he’d like to see happen – somehow.

The president may not understand this, but the Republican Party’s agenda is struggling badly right now, with GOP lawmakers divided badly on how, and whether, to pursue their high-profile priorities. Given a grand stage, Trump spent quite a bit of time pointing to vague solutions to imagined problems – he’s convinced the health care system is collapsing, unemployment is rising, and crime and illegal immigration are soaring, none of which is even remotely true – while simultaneously offering no meaningful policy guidance to those desperate for some leadership from the White House.

I found myself nodding enthusiastically while reading this take from The New Republic’s Brian Beutler.
Trump peppered his remarks with a more balanced mix of banal platitudes, lies, and characteristically offensive agitation than marked his inaugural address and other speeches—aimed more squarely at lazy pundits primed to celebrate Trump’s latest “pivot” than at insecure members of the Republican congressional conferences. […]

But against a backdrop of severe congressional dysfunction, when his members are deeply divided over the substance and ordering of their agenda, nothing he said made their marching orders clearer. With his agenda on the brink, and his party in need of direction, Trump sought to shore up his personal tracking poll numbers.
That may very well work out for the White House in the short term, and given pundits’ praise, Trump’s woeful approval ratings may soon get a bump. But the fact remains he has a daunting to-do list – overhauling the American health care system, reforming the nation’s tax code, expanding the size of the American military, creating a massive border wall, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure – and his shallow, dishonest speech brought him no closer to his goals.