Trump began by saying the state of the union was “strong because our people are strong.” He said of dealing with countries such as China and Russia: “Weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense.” He said of dealing with the Islamic State: “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation.” He talked about the country being in the process of “regain[ing] its strength.” He pushed to “annihilate” terrorists. Trump was going for a muscular speech — quite literally.
Trump's illusion of unity
One of the biggest applause lines in Trump's 2017 speech was when he declared, “The time for trivial fights is behind us.” Democrats and even many Republicans hoped it signaled a new day. It was false hope. Whatever you think of Trump, his M.O. is almost always to drive a wedge between the two sides of American politics, solidifying his base and causing his critics to become outraged. Trump alluded to the same mythical brand of unity Tuesday.
“Tonight, 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,” he said. The past 11 months, though, have proven over and over that Trump has little interest in making such unification a reality. And even in his speech, Trump decided to raise highly divisive issues such as national anthem protests and crimes by undocumented immigrants.
In a speech that began with Trump praising heroes who had sacrificed for their country, the House majority whip got arguably the biggest ovation. Trump labeling him the “legend from Louisiana” was a particularly memorable tribute for the congressman who was shot at a congressional baseball practice and returned to Congress after months of rehab.
Perhaps as was to be expected, Trump reserved a big chunk of his speech for the lone signature legislative accomplishment of his first year: tax cuts. He mentioned the word “tax” 16 times and painted a picture of a growing American economy that just got a shot in the arm. The tax cuts were severely unpopular when they passed, but Republicans have hitched their wagon to them. And after a long year, the Republicans in the room sure seemed happy to have the chance to brag about something.
Trump is no stranger to hyperbole and straight-up false claims, and his first State of the Union was no exception. He said the United States is “now an exporter of energy to the world.” Wrong. He said Congress passed and he signed “the biggest tax cuts and reform in American history.” Wrong. He said,“We have eliminated more regulations in our first year than any administration in history.” That might be true, but because available records don't go back beyond a few decades, we simply don't know. Trump even claimed that his tax cuts were leading to bonuses — many of which were “thousands and thousands of dollars per worker.” The most publicized bonuses, though, were generally $1,000. These are part of Trump's everyday talking points, so hearing them in this speech wasn't jarring. But it is notable that the White House uses bogus and unproven claims even on this stage.
The longest State of the Union on record since the 1960s was President Bill Clinton's in 2000. It clocked in at just under one hour and 29 minutes. Trump's speech Tuesday night didn't exceed that, but for a time, it seemed it might. The final clock on Trump's speech was more than one hour and 20 minutes, which was the third-longest on record, according to the American Presidency Project. He clearly wasn't considering those of us with young children.
The deep state
This speech was hardly a screed against secret operators within the government trying to take him down, but Trump made several allusions to the idea that the American government hasn't been on their side. “Americans love their country, and they deserve a government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return,” he said at one point. He added: “For the last year, we have sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government.” He even at one point alluded to a proposal to allow Cabinet secretaries to remove government employees who “fail the American people.” At a time when he and his supporters are increasingly pointing to alleged bias in law enforcement and Trump is reported to want to get rid of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, those words seemed thicker.
The speech began with dozens of Democratic members of Congress not even present because they were boycotting. And for much of the speech, it seemed as though the rest of them might as well have stayed home, too. Even as Trump hailed uncontroversial and nonpartisan things such as rising wages, millions of jobs created and a new low in the black unemployment rate, Democrats didn't stand. When Trump made the above plea for unity, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) disbelief practically leaped out at you during a brief cutaway on CSPAN's cameras.
Before he got to the details of his immigration proposal, Trump spent a lengthy period of the speech focused on crime committed by illegal immigrants. He even spotlighted four parents of teenagers who were killed by MS-13 gang members. It seemed geared toward assuring immigration hawks that he isn't going soft by allowing "dreamers” a path to citizenship. But Democrats view this as an effort to demonize all of the undocumented population, and by the time Trump talked about specific proposals, they were having basically none of it.