Reading laboriously from his teleprompter, Donald Trump droned on for over an hour through his State of the Union address last night, delivering the most conventional speech of his presidency like an adolescent forced to eat his vegetables. Off-script partisan petulance—Trump stiffing Pelosi’s proffered hand at the start and Pelosi ripping up his text at the end—provided the most entertainment value. Along the way, the impeached president exposed both the poisonous reelection strategy that makes him formidable and the myopic ignorance that renders him vulnerable.
Even on script, Trump spiced the standard SOTU patter with his signature insolence. He laced his boasts about the economy and his accomplishments with routine lies, distortions, and Obama aspersions. To the mawkish display of American heroes and victims as props—a staple since Ronald Reagan brought B movie schmaltz to Washington—Trump added his own reality-TV touch, dispensing favors like a tinpot Mussolini: awarding a little girl an “opportunity scholarship,” promoting a 100-year-old war hero, bringing a soldier home to surprise his wife, and preposterously enlisting the first lady to pin the Medal of Honor around the neck of the old hate radio mogul Rush Limbaugh. The endless paean to American greatness at the end bared once more a president badly in need of an editor and a handler.
The reelection strategy is clear: He will rouse his base to vote in large numbers. Once more he will foment fear and division: “illegal criminal aliens” inflated into a racialized threat. He’ll throw himself into the lists of the culture wars, pandering on guns, school prayer, abortion, ICE, and the military. He’ll stroke his backers from the country club crowd to Big Oil. He will defend insurance companies from the threat of “socialism” (otherwise known as extending Medicare, the most popular American medical program, to all).
Trump continues to find it necessary to run the con as a faux populist. He focused a pitch on African Americans—touting record low unemployment, “opportunity zones,” support for historically black colleges and universities—hoping to pare something off almost universal opposition. He reassured suburban women with renewed promises on day care, paid family leave, schools, prescription drugs, and the environment. He lied about protecting preexisting conditions even as his administration is before the Supreme Court trying to repeal the health care reforms that provided that. For seniors, he dutifully intoned the big lie about protecting Medicare and Social Security, even as his budgets seek to cut them and savage Medicaid. Once more he promised to “end America’s wars in the Middle East,” even as he has dispatched more troops to the region and moved closer to war with Iran. Impudently, this lawless and impeached president boasted, “With every action, my administration is restoring the rule of law and reasserting the culture of American freedom.”
Trump inadvertently revealed how threadbare his agenda is for a second term. He’s already slashed taxes on the rich and the corporations, gutted regulations on the environment and health and safety, wrapped up his initial trade deals, and packed the courts. The closest thing to a big idea was to recycle the hoary pledge to rebuild our infrastructure, which Democrats have been pleading for him to do for three years.
Trump’s vulnerability is that he is ever more divorced from reality. He boasts that he has already made America great again. The “state of our union is stronger than ever before.” The economy has never been better. We are enjoying a “blue-collar boom,” with good jobs coming in and wages going up.
In fact, this economy still doesn’t work for working people. Wages for working people, as Bernie Sanders noted in rebuttal, have gone up about 1 percent after inflation under Trump, while the income and wealth of billionaires have soared. Forty-five percent of working Americans are still uninsured or underinsured. Millions have lost health insurance under Trump. One in five can’t afford the prescriptions their doctors recommend. Student debt is an obscenity. Manufacturing is in recession. Trump’s trade machinations delivered more pain than gain—and his tax cuts gave multinationals continued incentives to set up operations abroad. America continues to be deformed by extreme private wealth and public squalor.
And Trump remains in breathtaking, corrupted denial about the central existential threat facing Americans: the catastrophic climate crisis. Not a word was mentioned on the fires in Australia and California, the floods in the Midwest, the hurricanes savaging Puerto Rico to Houston. Catastrophic climate events are already costing an estimated $250 billion a year—and Trump is still boasting about the United States leading the world in fossil fuel production. Trump may find that he will be the first president to pay a political price for standing with Big Oil and King Coal.
Americans tend to reelect their presidents, particularly when the economy is going well. Impeachment has led as expected to Senate acquittal. Trump’s approval ratings are at their highest ever. Trump knows how to rouse his base. They voted in large numbers in 2018 even without his being at the top of the ticket. Trump also mobilizes the Democratic coalition, which is far larger if it turns out to vote. Even unbuttoned on the stump, Trump’s noxious combination of lies and hate is less worrisome than this week’s Iowa caucus returns that featured a relatively low turnout among Democrats. His routine is getting tired. The only question is whether the progressive movement in this country will bring to the polls the majority that it represents.