What the hell was that?
I’ve lived through many moments of American political fakery, but Donald Trump’s first official State of the Union address made them look like genuine world-shifting events. Hours before the speech, his administration and Pundit Nation promised us the theme would be “unity.” Instead, we got nativism and jingoism, gibberish, heavy breathing, and appeals to divisions of every imaginable sort. Near the end, Trump got the now-docile Republicans in his audience to jump to their feet chanting “USA, USA,” like sports fans after too many beers.
There was even a direct appeal to drunk white sports fans: Trump took a moment to trash the black athletes who take a knee during the national anthem, by first praising a young white boy who makes a practice of planting American flags on veterans’ graves. “Preston’s reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem,” Trump intoned. Republicans in the audience thrilled to the message, as did his base at home.
But to the extent that there were any soaring moments (nope) or successful arguments (yes for his base, maybe for the pundits), they will be forgotten within days, more likely hours, against the backdrop of the crisis of democracy that got more dangerous just in the last 36 hours. On Monday, the Trump administration ousted FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe over his role in the bureau’s investigation into Russian election meddling as well as its 2016 Hillary Clinton e-mail probe. The same day, Representative Devin Nunes and the GOP majority on the House Intelligence Committee released a memo attempting to discredit the Russia investigation, and at the same time suppressed the Democratic response to the memo. While almost no one paid attention, the White House announced that it would not extend the sanctions against Russia for that election meddling, passed by Congress last year with overwhelmingly bipartisan support.
So while Monday was the most dangerous day for American justice since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey over his role in investigating “the Russia thing” last May, on Tuesday the US establishment was commanded to pause its work and pay attention to the transpartisan pageantry of the annual SOTU. Luckily for the Resistance, there wasn’t much.
Since it was a shallow, image-driven event, let’s appraise it on those terms first. Trump and his most important enabler, House Speaker Paul Ryan, wore complementary blue ties. Did they talk first? Melania Trump, fresh from an unscheduled trip to the Holocaust Museum and then Mar-a-Lago, wore a white pants suit, which reminded many on social media of Hillary Clinton accepting the Democratic presidential nomination. Was it suffragette white? Future divorcee champagne? We can’t be sure. Trump spoke slowly, as though careful not to go off script on this night he was gifted to change the dreary narrative of his presidency.
He packed the gallery with sobbing parents—the Long Island moms and dads of teenage daughters allegedly murdered by the Salvadoran gang MS-13, as well as the parents of Otto Warmbier, the young American tourist who wound up in North Korea and died of injuries he sustained in prison there. These were genuine tragedies, but Trump used them to promote the cruelty of his agenda.
Thus did the Dreamers, who Trump purports to want to keep in the country, get entwined with the violent MS-13, as Trump talked about one, and then the other, and then went back to MS-13 again. Trump claims he wants a DACA deal, but he used SOTU to demand that it include an end to the “diversity visa lottery” and “chain migration.” The visa lottery, he said, “randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit or the safety of the American people.” He blamed “chain migration” for what he called two “recent” terror attacks on New York City. I believe he was talking about the driver who ran down bicyclists along the West Side Highway in October and the man who tried and failed to set off a suicide bomb in the Port Authority in early December. He never sent thoughts or prayers to the New Yorkers who endured those attacks, but on Tuesday night he used them to attack immigrants, who made this city (and country) what it is. So we see him.
With folksy language, Trump also declared war on the notion of civil service, plus the public-sector unions who often protect it. “I call on the Congress to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers,” Trump said, “and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” Again, an applause line for the GOP, and bad news for the rest of us. At home, the Koch brothers cheered.
As he and his defenders often do, Trump took credit for the economic recovery that was launched by Barack Obama, and that was actually more powerful during his presidency as well. The rate of job and wage growth was higher under Obama; it has continued to grow, but more slowly, under Trump. Once again he brazenly claimed responsibility for the declining black unemployment rate; the members of the Congressional Black Caucus who attended the speech (11 boycotted) were unimpressed.
But credit where it’s due: Trump didn’t fall asleep or drool or spew racial slurs. He praised “beautiful clean coal,” which was surreal, but he didn’t praise Nazis or white supremacists or say there are good people “on all sides” of the racial divides he has widened. Still, white supremacists praised the speech: David Duke particularly liked one nativist flourish—when Trump was talking about the Dreamers (whom he pretends to care about), he declared, “Americans are Dreamers, too.” At that, a grateful Duke tweeted: “Thank you President Trump.”
Public-opinion polls show an overwhelming majority of us also believe Dreamers are Americans.
Against the backdrop of worsening news about Trump’s and the GOP’s willingness to delegitimize Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference, it’s not surprising Trump didn’t mention that investigation. In 1974 Richard Nixon railed against the Watergate investigation; he was gone later that same year. Trump ignored his much worse troubles Tuesday night, but given Republican spinelessness, he may not get bad news comparable to Nixon’s until the November midterms.
So this sad SOTU changed nothing, except my Tuesday-night plans. Let’s hope that Tuesday in November changes Trump’s plans, permanently.