Pre-presidential Trump was a man of many faults and vices, but one endearing quality: He was no hypocrite. He exaggerated his wealth, his success, his physical fitness, but he never pretended to religion or morality.
Trump’s speech to the nation after the Las Vegas atrocity, however, was steeped in hypocrisy. He is the least outwardly religious president of modern times, the president least steeped in scripture. For him to offer the consolations of God and faith after mass bloodletting is to invite derision. “It is love that defines us,” said President Trump, and if we weren’t heartbroken, we would laugh.
Those who praised the speech, as CNN’s John King did, are reacting on reflex. This is the kind of thing we are used to hearing from Republican politicians; Trump is a Republican politician; therefore this is what he should say.
But whereas Vice President Pence could have pronounced those words with sincerity, or a convincing simulacrum thereof, Donald Trump looked shifty, nervous, and false. Speeches are watched as well as heard, and the viewer saw a president who wished he were somewhere else because he had been compelled to pretend something so radically false to his own nature.
For once, Trump read the speech exactly as written. Perhaps his aides talked him into it. Because Trump is not a good reader, he read the speech wrong. And because it sounded wrong, he looked bad.
Nevertheless, Trump had to say something. He is the president. At times of national mourning, it falls to him to speak on the nation’s behalf. What could he possibly have said instead?
He cannot offer action. Even if he ever were convinced that something had to be done about America’s unique gun violence, his party would not tolerate it, and he could not deliver. Anyway, the first shock of the atrocity is not the right time for policy.
What he can do is acknowledge his own nature and character, and speak as himself, in his own tones and accents, and without the religion in which he gives no evidence of believing and in which he is so poorly at home. “This is a terrible day. We are all saddened and outraged. We’ll learn more. If any criminals are still at large, we’ll hunt them down.” It’s better to say a few things that sound real than a great many that sound false.
So advice to Team Trump: You can’t make him better, and you can’t make him different. Let him be the man he is, just tidied up a little. Cut the God talk. It’s insulting to those who believe, and no comfort to those who grieve. Cut the appeal to national unity; it rings false from a president who just two days ago was accusing homeless hurricane victims of looking for a handout. Trump voters—there are still many of those—liked it that with him, what you saw was what you got. Be real. Be true. Even Donald Trump must have something authentically human within him. Unearth that, and let it speak. He will never be a compassionate man, but even he cannot be so thoroughly empty and remote as he seemed today.
This piece was originally published at the Atlantic Monthly.