It’s one of the most dispiriting rituals that attend State of the Union addresses in the Trump era: White House advisers piously promise us that President Trump will issue new calls for unity and bipartisan comity, and for reasons that remain baffling, far too many observers then feel obliged to pretend that these soothing exhortations are real.
But this time around, there’s just no excuse for playing along. That’s because we’ve already seen what happens in the real world after Trump stands before Congress and carries out his unity routine — not once, but twice.
The New York Times reports that White House officials are previewing a speech that will supposedly “lean into a bipartisan and optimistic vision for the country.” White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway vows that it will call for “comity” and “compromise.” Former White House spokesman Raj Shah gushes that Trump can “turn the page” with “unifying, patriotic, and optimistic themes that have worked well for him in previous addresses.”
So let’s talk about those “previous addresses,” and about what happened in their wake.
Idea of ‘presidential’ Trump takes root, and becomes stock joke
In his 2017 joint address to Congress, delivered just after he took office, Trump claimed to be delivering a “message of unity,” exhorted the country to be “united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” called for “healing and hope,” vowed to “work with members in both parties,” and directed the two parties to “unite for the good of our country.”
Headlines proclaimed Trump’s speech “surprisingly presidential.” Speaking about Trump’s staged moment honoring a slain Navy SEAL’s widow, one commentator enthused that “he became president of the United States in that moment.”
That line quickly became a stock joke. And for good reason.
Barely a month before Trump issued those soothing words, nationwide mass protests had already erupted over the travel ban he signed upon taking office, a measure haphazardly thrown together in naked malevolence to fulfill a campaign promise premised squarely on openly advertised anti-Muslim bigotry and lies, in defiance of internal administration analyses undercutting its fake national security rationale. In the weeks after his speech, as his administration rewrote the ban to get around the courts, Trump blithely conceded that the new one was merely a “watered down” version, again confirming the bad faith and malevolent intent saturating this whole process.
Only a few months later, in August 2017, Trump refused to unambiguously condemn white supremacist violence and murder in Charlottesville, instead blaming “many sides.” Trump only made more conciliatory remarks after aides pushed him into it, whereupon he privately exploded that this made him look “weak,” and reverted to the “many sides” formulation. Importantly, Trump had concluded his base would thrill to the “many sides” approach, which means he deliberately placed the goal of keeping his base enthralled before the presidential obligation of unifying the country at moments of searing national tension.
Also in mid-2017, Trump pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had abused and violated the rights of untold numbers of Latino immigrants. Trump had become “sold on the pardon as a way of pleasing his political base,” again actively placing the desire to thrill his rally crowds before any institutional obligation to consider the impact of his conduct on the rule of law and the rest of the country.
Anyone else notice a pattern here?
In his State of the Union speech in January 2018, Trump called upon the two parties to “set aside our differences,” to “seek out common ground,” and to “summon the unity we need to deliver for the people.”
Only a couple weeks earlier in 2018, we had learned that Trump privately derided people coming here from places like Haiti, El Salvador and Africa as immigrants from “s---hole countries.” Crucially, this ugly impulse drove administration policy, in that Trump rejected immigration compromises precisely because in his view they allowed too many people from those countries to remain here. Those prejudices actively trumped “common ground” and “unity.”
Only a few months later, Trump’s horrific family separations hit. Planning for the policy was slapdash, surprising officials who struggled to implement it. But Trump had pulled the trigger while claiming “my people love it,” again confirming the malevolence, bad faith and prioritization of the base’s prejudices festering at the core of such decisions. Similarly, as the Associated Press reported, Trump privately resolved to revive his attacks on African American football players because so doing “revs up his political base."
What followed throughout 2018 was the most virulently xenophobic and anti-immigrant campaign in modern memory. It was girded by an extraordinary campaign of agitprop and lies about desperate asylum-seeking migrants, and painted Democrats as a party enabling hordes of violent invaders and even cop-killers to breach our border.
Trump’s two-tiered speeches
A smart Democratic strategist recently remarked to me that he believes Trump and his political operation are carrying on a conversation with his voters that is 24/7 and is heavily laden with cultural and emotional signaling in a manner that Democrats have not quite reckoned with yet. The last two speeches to Congress took a two-tiered approach: Trump throws out a few nuggets of superficially unifying rhetoric designed to garner approval from elite centrist commentators, while also keeping a conveyor belt laden with bloody meat running to his supporters.
It’s all but certain that we’ll hear the same in his third installment. But, given all that has followed after the last two, can we stop pretending that the unifying tones are anything other than a scam?