President Trump’s State of the Union address was the perfect reflection of him — self-satisfied, self-congratulatory, disingenuous and entirely lacking in empathy. “There has never been a better time to start living the American dream,” he declared, as if the dystopia of the Barack Obama years — that bleak, losing, crime-ridden nightmare — had vanished in a short year to be replaced by nirvana. And if you are white and rich, he had a point.
After a year of unrivaled (since the Civil War) animosity, race-baiting, demonizing opponents (which in his mind includes the press), he called for unity. “Unity is really what I’m striving for, to bring the country together,” is in one sense arguably the most disingenuous line of his presidency; but if by unity he demands agreement, capitulation and unqualified praise, then yes, that is what he has been shooting for. In fact this was a long harangue against immigrants masquerading as a State of the Union address.
Many, if not most, Democrats remained glum with arms crossed and withheld applause as he entered and during his draggy speech. The contrast between Trump’s paean to unity and the divisions he has wrought could not be wider — and according to polls is acknowledged even by Republicans. It is the sort of thing a normal president, one who had actually attempted to bring the country together rather than investigate his political opponent, wage war on the free press, demonize immigrants, launch a smear campaign against the FBI and accuse his predecessor of criminality (wiretapping Trump Tower) would have said. But then Trump has always asked his audience to believe him and not their own experience or observation.
And then on cue came the meat of the speech: Demonizing immigrants. When he declared, “Struggling communities, especially immigrant communities, will also be helped by immigration policies that focus on the best interests of American workers and American families,” he would have us believe he had not eradicated DACA, had not doubled the deportation of noncriminal illegal immigrants and not understood a single economic study finding immigrants contribute to our society by starting more businesses, committing fewer crimes and owning more homes (by percentage) than the native-born population. He utterly rejects the notion that America is the land of immigrants — the place made prosperous and dynamic by those who come here from elsewhere.
And sure enough he played the “immigrants take from us” card (“my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers and America’s forgotten communities. I want our youth to grow up to achieve great things. I want our poor to have their chance to rise”). It never dawns on him that immigrants do benefit our children and struggling workers and are an essential part of a pro-growth agenda. And in yet another scare-mongering tactic he blamed the visa lottery for terrorist attacks: “In recent weeks, two terrorist attacks in New York were made possible by the visa lottery and chain migration.” For those who care to recall the facts, these terrorists were radicalized after years being here and, therefore, do not implicate the lottery system.
The amount of time devoted to this topic and the resumption of scare tactics confirm immigration restriction and xenophobia (there was the mandatory MS-13 reference) remain centerpieces of the GOP agenda. He also falsely insisted chain migration — that would be family reunification — is bringing in hordes of immigrants — “unlimited” numbers in fact! Even for him, that’s an outrageous misstatement.
As one would expect, he equated economic success with the stock market (which dropped more than 300 points today) and claimed credit for three million (!) bonuses; no mention was made of the layoffs or stock buybacks. He exaggerated his job record. NBC chimed in with a fact check: “Trump’s first year in office was marked by 2.1 million jobs being added to the economy — the slowest year of job growth in six years — while the other job gains came under President Barack Obama. Wages are indeed rising, but they were not exactly stagnate. They’ve been rising steadily for years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
Beyond taking credit for the economy that was already on an upward trajectory when he arrived, his domestic accomplishments are so few that he was forced to fill space with anecdotes that have literally nothing to do with him (e.g., a boy putting flags on veterans’ graves) or to speak of his plans to do things, with little indication as to how he will accomplish them. (“One of my greatest priorities is to reduce the price of prescription drugs. In many other countries, these drugs cost far less than what we pay in the United States. That is why I have directed my administration to make fixing the injustice of high drug prices one of our top priorities. Prices will come down.”)
He did sound the call for an infrastructure bill. (“I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need. Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment — to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit. Any bill must also streamline the permitting and approval process — getting it down to no more than two years, and perhaps even one.”) Republicans seemed unenthusiastic. One wonders how his presidency would have been different had he started his term with this rather than a failed effort to repeal Obamacare.
He once more pledged to wage war against the opioid epidemic: “My administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need. The struggle will be long and difficult — but, as Americans always do, we will prevail.” He’s yet to fund such efforts or to put any competent expert in charge (Kellyanne Conway does not count.)
His discussion of foreign policy was perfunctory but also entirely undistinguished aside from a pledge to keep Guantanamo Bay open (did anyone think he’d do anything different?), a call for more military funding, praise for progress on fighting the Islamic State and threatening foreign aid. He did NOT call for an end to the Iran nuclear deal but instead offered: “I am asking the Congress to address the fundamental flaws in the terrible Iran nuclear deal.” It seems saner heads have prevailed on the issue. Most surprising was his focus on human rights atrocities in North Korea and his lack of bombastic threats. Both were appropriate. The parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died of abuse in the hands of North Korean captives, was certainly moving. Ji Seong-ho, a refugee from torture in North Korea who traveled on crutches to escape, was an unintentional reminder of how perverse it is to keep immigrants out. Would America not benefit by his permanent presence? Trump apparently finds him admirable only insofar as he lives elsewhere. Finally, one could only marvel at how his speechwriters could have claimed Trump has improved our standing abroad. He uttered the word “Russia” once — in passing.
The speech was far too long — or maybe just boring when it was not being insulting and inflammatory on immigration. With so few actual accomplishments the speech felt padded. With the exception of his determination to paint immigrants as a danger and a drag on America (in the face of all evidence to the contrary) it was rather ordinary. An on-message Trump is a dull Trump.