Commentary: Trump’s trap of his own making

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – Tuesday night’s State of the Union Address made at least one thing clear.

President Donald Trump is locked in a trap of his own making.

John Krull, publisher,

The success of his spurious appeals to his own base regarding undocumented immigration now make it almost impossible for this president to build his much-vaunted wall or negotiate any sort of working relationship with those who don’t already immediately and completely agree with him.

That’s why Trump’s 82-minute speech – the third-longest State of the Union in history – seemed such a mismatched, fits-and-starts, discordant affair. It included perfunctory calls for bipartisan cooperation and pure partisan fire-breathing and self-contradicting claims of an economic miracle and warnings of a coming economic meltdown.

It read not as if it had been written by a committee but instead by multiple debate teams, each of whom wanted to test out arguments.

Nor was the president’s performance all that good.

Trump on the stump is a magnetic experience. When he’s campaigning and often operating without or veering from a prepared text, he can be a like a great jazz artist, improvising riff after riff that electrifies.

Many people can and should disagree with what he says, but it’s impossible to deny the man’s ability to move and connect with an audience when he’s free-forming in an environment in which he’s comfortable.

Watching him speak from a teleprompter, though, is painful.

He reads the words as if he were encountering them for the first time, stumbling over his applause lines, sounding out phrases like a small child doing elocution drills and pursing his lips anxiously as each tricky passage approaches.

There were a lot of those passages in this speech.

The president’s immediate political problem is figuring out how to appease his base by securing a commitment to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

His leverage, he thought, was a threat to shut down the federal government. He did that and it was a disaster. His poll numbers plummeted, and even normally Trump-compliant Republican members of Congress grew more restive each day as the shutdown continued.

The president hinted in the speech that he might shut the government down again if he doesn’t get his wall, but the implied threat was an empty one. It was a bit like warning everyone that, having shot himself in the right foot, he’d now reloaded and was ready to shoot himself in the left one, too.

But that’s the nature of the box he’s fashioned for himself.

The makings of a deal on the issue of immigration have been in place from the beginning of Trump’s presidency.

Democrats and some Republicans who are forward-thinking enough to realize America, like the rest of the world, soon will be in the hunt for as much labor as it can get, want an easier, cleaner path to citizenship for law-abiding and hardworking immigrants. They also want a system that doesn’t penalize or terrorize children of immigrants born in this country, most of whom have built good and productive lives here.

Trump wants a wall to keep immigrants from entering the country without proper documentation and the means to more effectively punish those who violate our laws when they do come here.

These aren’t and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive propositions. In a sane world, reasonable people long ago would have figured out a way to turn this into a “both-and” rather than an “either-or” proposition.

But the president’s heated rhetoric on the issue makes that impossible. Because he has cast the immigration issue in such apocalyptic terms, his base and the yapping chorus of right-wing talking heads such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter see any admission of fact or reality into the discussion as a failure of presidential nerve.

His success in convincing his fiercest supporters that a crisis exists has left Trump, who proclaims himself a master of the art of the deal, in a position in which he can’t deal at all.

No wonder the president looked so stiff and awkward speaking to the nation Tuesday night.

His own actions have left him with very little room to maneuver.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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