Hours before President Donald Trump delivered his speech on the war in Afghanistan on Monday, I told MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace that he needed to do more than just say we have to win. After almost 16 years in the graveyard of empires and countless tweets about how the United States needed to “get out,” the president delivered a roughly 25-minute speech - “win” (mentioned 6 times), “victory” (4), “won” (3), “defeat” (7) - that guarantees the United States will stay the course a while longer. “Trump’s barely-different Afghanistan war plan” was the perfect summation in a headline for a piece by Kevin Baron, executive editor of Defense One.
While Trump’s remarks on our longest war didn’t inspire me, what he did say at the top of his speech was remarkable. In a nation where less than 1 percent of the U.S. population is serving active-duty in the armed forces, the president read words that skillfully held up the military as a model for the nation and linked its noble goals to our nation’s noble intent.
“By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation under God. The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission, and one shared sense of purpose.
“They transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed, and color to serve together - and sacrifice together - in absolutely perfect cohesion. That is because all servicemembers are brothers and sisters. They’re all part of the same family; it’s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag, and live according to the same law. They are bound together by common purpose, mutual trust, and selfless devotion to our nation and to each other.
“The soldier understands what we, as a nation, too often forget — that a wound inflicted upon a single member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all. When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together.
“Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.
“The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.
“As we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas - and we will always win - let us find the courage to heal our divisions within. Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name that, when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.”
Those soaring words said by anyone else would be heralded as a much-needed balm for a nation still reeling from the unmasked racism unleashed on the nation this month. We are still coming to terms with the horror of Charlottesville. But we are also still grappling with having heard the president of the United States coddle the Confederacy and those who revere its treason, and put Nazis, white supremacists and other bigots on the same plane as the good and right people who demonstrated against them.
“When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.” At his rancid press conference on Aug. 15, Trump proved his heart to be sealed shut and stripped the presidency bare of its moral authority.
“We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.” True, but what can Trump do about it when he assaults enemies and national political discourse 140 characters at a time?
“As we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas - and we will always win - let us find the courage to heal our divisions within.” Healing those divisions requires a commander in chief who doesn’t take delight in exacerbating them. If Trump is to be true to these words, he could start by looking within to find that courage he talked about.
What Trump did Monday night came 10 days too late. The sentiments he expressed are meaningless, empty given the shocking and callous things he said to the nation in the lobby of his gilded tower on Fifth Avenue a week ago. And his support for protests against the removal of Confederate monuments deepens the ugliness he thought he could erase Monday night. I didn’t believe Trump’s milquetoast words on Aug. 12. I didn’t believe his grudging remarks on Aug. 14. I didn’t believe him after Monday night’s third attempt to get it right.
Trump needs to face this fact: He’ll never get it right. That black mark he raked across his presidency on Aug. 15 is indelible. He’ll never get it out because he is incapable of the contrition, humility and regret that fuel the actions necessary to remove it.
Jonathan Capehart is a Washington Post columnist.