Hearing President Trump during Tuesday’s State of the Union address — or, really, at any time — one would imagine that the greatest threat the country faces is a nonexistent invasion of bloodthirsty criminals flooding over “our very dangerous southern border.” Or skinflint NATO allies that take advantage of U.S. military protection. Or modest environmental regulations that make it a bit more difficult to retrieve and burn every last bit of coal and oil buried under American lands. The president called for unity, but he made clear on Tuesday, as he has repeatedly over the past two years, that he has a unique vision of American unity: national capitulation to the simplistic solutions with which he proposes to address his weird, often fact-less preoccupations.
The president declared, absurdly, that his agenda is “the agenda of the American people,” and he claimed, also absurdly, that over the past two years of self-imposed crises, “my administration has moved with urgency and historic speed to confront problems neglected by leaders of both parties over many decades.”
Trump did not even mention many of the country’s biggest problems — some of the ticking time bombs that the baby boomers are leaving behind after changing the atmosphere’s chemistry, increasingly concentrating the country’s wealth with the wealthiest, and spending national resources lavishly without regard for who will have to pay later. If the baby boomers are the self-obsessed generation, they are reputed to be, the greatest boomer president is arguably Trump, the wayward, thin-skinned narcissist they imposed on the country during these crucial four years.
Just as scientists are raising alarms about the disintegration of Antarctica’s massive ice shelves and ice sheets, Trump said nothing about global warming. Maybe that’s for the better: Whenever he addresses the issue, it is usually to mock those who care about the planet’s already well-documented, rapid environmental changes. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is dying before the world’s eyes, and the leader of the Earth’s most powerful nation has nothing helpful to say about modern society’s complicity in the catastrophes to come, let alone how to lower climate risks.
The president also spent not a word on the nation’s increasing concentration of wealth at the top. And why would he? He helped make the issue worse. His tax-cut bill was full of giveaways to the rich. Most galling was the rollback of the estate tax, an $83 billion sop to super-wealthy heirs. He bragged about “an unprecedented economic boom” and his “massive tax cut.” But the tax-cut package’s economic sugar high is already wearing off. And the price tag for the tax cuts will drive up the national tab for years to come — by $1.7 trillion in reduced revenue over the next decade alone, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Which points to another long-term challenge that went unmentioned: The size of the debt relative to the economy is higher now than at any time since World War II, and it is projected to blow past that historical threshold in coming decades, leaving future generations with less fiscal space to deal with recessions, address disasters, fight wars or improve quality of life.
Yes, Trump spoke about fixing the nation’s strained infrastructure, another baby boomer legacy. The Greatest Generation gave the boomers gleaming new highways, bridges and airports. The boomers used them, and used them, and used them. But fixing up the nation’s roads and rails can be done quickly relative to reversing the trend toward ever-higher global greenhouse gas emissions or tightening up the nation’s budget without cannibalizing federal spending on crucial government services. Rallying the country to address climate change is a harder and yet more urgent task than repaving roads.
If Trump is an adrift president for an unserious generation, he is also a challenge to the rising generations slowly but surely moving into our own. We can do better — not only than Trump, but than the can-kicking leaders who allowed these problems to fester before him. We are going to have to.