State of the Union addresses do not have to be crude exercises in cynicism. But Donald Trump on Tuesday night presented a stark example of how soulless the exercise can be when the presidency is entrusted to an incorrigible egotist who disregards science and society.
The president’s address, delivered after he literally shut the government down for 35 days, began as a desperate attempt to portray himself as a functional leader proposing “common good” cooperation that “can break decades of political stalemate.” But Trump could not maintain the bipartisan facade for long. In short order, he was renewing the rhetoric of the shutdown with a rant about “large organized caravans” preparing a “tremendous onslaught” on “our very dangerous southern border.”
This president’s cynicism is often galling. But Trump outdid himself on Tuesday night, when he complained about “ridiculous partisan investigations” and tried to portray necessary inquiries into allegations of massive wrongdoing by his aides and allies as threats to peace and progress. Then, with his “America will never be a socialist country” screed, Trump re-upped the old lie that equates the humane democratic socialism proposed by a Bernie Sanders or an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with “government coercion, domination, and control.”
But the president’s most cynical juxtaposition came when, after promising to
“forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future,” he announced that “We have unleashed a revolution in American Energy—the United States is now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas in the world.”
Trump, a climate-change dismisser and denier, is accurately described as “the most relentlessly anti-environmental president in modern U.S. history.” And he was true to form on Tuesday night. The man who in the first months of his presidency pulled the United States out of the global coalition that had been developed to curb the emissions that contribute to the crisis avoided any reference to the most urgent news regarding climate change: a fresh report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that calls for unprecedented action to save the planet and its people.
With the world’s leading climate scientists warning that “there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people,” The Guardian explained in October that the hope for the future “lies at the most ambitious end of the Paris agreement pledge to keep temperatures between 1.5C and 2C.”
“The half-degree difference could also prevent corals from being completely eradicated and ease pressure on the Arctic, according to the 1.5C study,” which the newspaper reported “was launched after approval at a final plenary of all 195 countries in Incheon in South Korea that saw delegates hugging one another, with some in tears.”
Trump lacks the sense of urgency that the moment demands. Perhaps he is ignorant. Perhaps he is a crook who barters off policy decisions to the highest bidders. Perhaps he is just a pathetic excuse for a president who is consequential only because of the damage he does.
Whatever the explanation, whatever the excuses, the main takeaway from this year’s State of the Union address is that we need to replace the guy at the podium with someone who gets it. This country desperately needs a president who rallies the country in favor of a Green New Deal on a scale that the Sunrise Movement proposes “would transform our economy and society at the scale needed to stop the climate crisis.”
“Achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.”
“Create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all.”
“Promote justice and equity by preventing current and repairing historic oppression to frontline and vulnerable communities.”
In her letter soliciting support from House colleagues for a Green New Deal resolution, Ocasio-Cortez calls for a “national, social, industrial and economic mobilization at a scale not seen since World War II.”
This is what is required. This is what is necessary.
But to get there, this country needs a president who is prepared to speak as did the president who led the country during World War II.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the nation’s 32nd president, used his State of the Union addresses as pivot points for the country and the world—moments when he laid out visionary agendas for overcoming economic instability, beating fascism, and forging a lasting peace based on “Four Freedoms,” principles of equity and justice.
Seventy-five years ago this winter, with a January 11, 1944, address that was delivered in written form to the Congress and then delivered to a national radio audience for a Fireside Chat, Roosevelt proposed “a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.” In what would come to be understood as his “Economic Bill of Rights,” the president responded to the evidence—from the Great Depression and World War II—that a new era demanded new guarantees of security and opportunity for the American people.
“This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty,” FDR explained, in a State of the Union address that actually said something. “As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
To that end, he proposed to a charter that included:
* The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
* The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
* The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
* The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
* The right of every family to a decent home;
* The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
* The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
* The right to a good education.
Roosevelt’s agenda was radical because radicalism was necessary. The failure of Democrats to advance his Economic Bill of Rights as a central premise of their politics in the years that followed FDR’s death did damage to their party and their country. The compromise and complacency must end. Trump may deny that climate change is the existential threat of our time. But the world cannot afford his cynicism. And Americans have a duty to resist it.
This resistance must be central to the campaign to replace Donald Trump.
If Tuesday’s exercise in cynicism taught us anything, it is this: The Democrats who hope to someday deliver State of the Union addresses themselves must recognize that this country needs a president who embraces FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights and extends it to include a Green New Deal commitment that guarantees the right to a future.