The first time Donald Trump gave a scripted speech after winning the election was on the night of Nov. 8, 2016. During that election night address, he said that it was time for the United States to “bind the wounds of division” following his victory.
“To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation,” he said, “I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.”
It didn’t take. The next day, protests against Trump broke out across the country, protests that lasted, in some places, for days.
Around Thanksgiving of that year, he repeated the request.
“I am asking you to join me in this effort,” he said in a recorded message. “It is time to restore the bonds of trust between citizens. Because when America is unified, there is nothing beyond our reach, and I mean absolutely nothing.”
On Jan. 20, 2017, he was inaugurated. “We must speak our minds openly,” he said, “debate our disagreements honestly but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.”
Over and over. We must unify. We should unite.
Trump’s first State of the Union address Tuesday night was pitched by the president as another attempt at the same.
“I would love to be able to bring back our country into a great form of unity,” he said during a lunch with members of the media. “Without a major event where people pull together,” he added, “that’s hard to do. But I would like to do it without that major event, because usually that major event is not a good thing.”
In the speech itself, Trump made an explicit call for unity from Congress itself.
“Tonight,” he said, “I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.”
This is admittedly a moment in which partisanship is about as strong as it has ever been. The gulf between Democrats and Republicans on their views of the president is yawning, a chasm that has widened under the past few chief executives. It would be challenging for any president to close that gap — or, as Trump notes, it would take a significant external challenge to do it. (The last time the gap was narrow was in the aftermath of 9/11.)
But it’s impossible not to note that Trump has himself done very little to bring America together. For each of the speeches calling for unity, there are a score of interviews in which Trump bashes his political opponents and 50 tweets disparaging Democrats, Democratic politicians or left-leaning values.
That tendency was obvious in the address itself. When Trump said that our military “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 was again dismissing the NFL protests against police violence. Black Americans and Democrats support those protests, according to a September 2017 CNN poll. Trump’s mention of the issue may have prompted applause from his base, but it no doubt reminded his opponents of their frustrations with Trump on issues of race. And it’s important to note: There was no reason to mention it. It was by no means integral to the oration.
Or the line that may be one of the longest-lasting from Trump’s remarks:
“My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans,” he said. “To protect their safety, their families, their communities and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers, too.”
Set aside the policy prescriptions that accompanied this and the consistent linking of “immigrant” and “criminal.” “Americans are dreamers, too” is an intentional appropriation of a term, “dreamers,” used to describe a population of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as minors. Dreamers have been at the center of the recent debate over immigration reform. With those four words, Trump said to them and Americans at large that those immigrants aren’t deserving of special consideration. He suggested to the immigrants, too, that they are part of a different group than “Americans.” That only Americans are “citizens,” as he made pointedly clear when he addressed “every citizen watching at home tonight,” telling them that “together, we can achieve anything.”
The line was to the immigration fight what “all lives matter” is to the issue of racial justice.
Again, this is squarely in line with what Trump’s base might want to hear. But it was divisive and entirely avoidable. A president sincerely looking to unify with the opposition would probably be more deliberate about not saying things that irritate them. He would also, over the first year of his presidency, have advocated policy positions that weren’t almost uniformly ones that meet only the desires of his base of support.
Trump’s rhetoric on unity has never been sincere. Trump sees political agreement in the same way he sees the Justice Department or the military: as something that is owed to him as president. Trump’s calls for unity are calls for the United States to support him and acquiesce to his policy goals. This is the source of the frustration that seeps out in those interviews and on Twitter. Having been a chief executive officer for years managing employees however he saw fit (and enjoying the Upton Sinclair-esque loyalty of those whose checks he signs), Trump is at a loss for why he should have to do something on his end to try to get Americans to rally to his cause. He’s the boss!
So he keeps demanding it. He keeps giving speeches in which he calls for America to unite around him — and then keeps reminding Americans why they don’t want to. Some of this was unavoidable, just as Republicans were never going to rally around President Barack Obama.
But much of it is Trump.