It has been widely observed that President Trump’s State of the Union speech was deeply incoherent: While he offered the usual paeans to bipartisan unity, they came packaged with vicious partisan attacks and lies, and on the core issues dividing the country, he rigidly refused to give any ground, while only talking to his base.
But this take, while accurate enough, underplays Trump’s real message, one that will continue animating his overall posture in the new Washington going forward. In many ways, Trump is demanding nothing less than total capitulation from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the new Democratic House majority and is telegraphing that he will continue operating as if the most recent election never happened.
Two of the biggest moments of the night, juxtaposed against one another, illustrate the broad contours of the situation.
“We ... have more women serving in Congress than at anytime before,” Trump said, to applause from all the newly elected Democratic women clad in white. “That’s great. Really great. And congratulations.”
But, even if we accept that this was a truly conciliatory moment, Trump also said in no uncertain terms that this new House majority must not carry out one of its most important institutional functions. It must neuter itself, and if it does not, the country gets it.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump claimed. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”
If the Democratic House exercises its legitimate oversight function, legislative compromise will not be possible, and very bad things will happen. As Brian Beutler notes, this is fundamentally “extortionate.”
True, Trump did rhetorically suggest some areas of potential legislative common ground, such as infrastructure. But, given that Trump promised to address infrastructure in both of his previous two addresses to Congress — and given that nothing has happened — we are no longer obliged to pretend this is a real invitation.
Indeed, the larger political context surrounding the speech leaves no doubt as to Trump’s broader meaning here. Trump is threatening harm to the country in a manner that is extortionate, right at this very moment, and there is little doubt we’ll see more of this once the Democratic investigations heat up.
Trump is threatening to detonate a ticking time bomb
As the political world dissects Trump’s rhetoric, the underlying reality is that right now, Democrats and Republicans on the conference committee are frantically negotiating to disable a ticking time bomb that Trump himself set — the threat of another government shutdown, or a declaration of a national emergency — if Trump doesn’t get his full wall funding.
The message Trump continues to send — one that suffused his speech — is that if Democrats don’t fully accept his terms, the bomb will detonate.
In his speech, Trump repeated the biggest lies festering at the core of his whole immigration narrative. He claimed we face a security crisis at the border, which is false by every metric, and he insisted the answer to this invented crisis is a “wall” or “barrier” — “Walls work," he claimed.
But his case relied on multiple lies about their known impact. And while Trump feigned great concern about the humanitarian crisis created by the crush of asylum-seeking families — which is real — he did not explain why a barrier would solve this crisis. He can’t, because it wouldn’t.
Trump insisted he has proposed a compromise that includes humanitarian money along with his wall and he browbeat Democrats to accept it. But the last “compromise” Trump offered was larded with fake concessions and poison pills. Right now, the Republicans who are negotiating the actual working compromise — that is, one that makes concessions to both sides — themselves admit that they do not know what Trump will accept. Even if barriers are negotiated, which is a real possibility, no one knows whether he’ll decree that these count as his wall.
Trump said nothing in his speech to alter that basic reality. Instead, he made the situation worse. He’d previously hinted he’d accept “steel barriers in high-priority locations” — which Democrats might agree to in exchange for real concessions — but, by reverting to his demand for a wall, he narrowed the space further for GOP negotiators. We’re back where we started: If Trump doesn’t fully get his way, we’re looking at another government shutdown or even a national emergency declaration — the new House majority be damned.
Trump’s lies constitute a demand for capitulation
In one sense, Trump’s reiteration of his most reprehensible and demagogic lies about the border itself constitutes a demand that Democrats capitulate — to his invented reality.
On Wednesday, the bipartisan conference committee members will be briefed by career U.S. Border Patrol officials as to what they say they actually need in the way of barriers. But we have no idea whether Trump will accept what emerges from this process if, in his mind, it doesn’t constitute a down payment on the fantasy campaign version of his wall. Trump may acquiesce if he decides the other options are worse for him. But his speech offers few grounds for confidence that he’s willing to allow facts and data to penetrate his bubble of wall-rage and wall-delusion.
Indeed, Trump’s speech was saturated with his and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller’s utter refusal to accept that the big arguments underlying their whole immigration agenda were soundly rejected in the midterm elections. A sizable popular majority rebuffed the most virulently xenophobic and anti-immigrant campaign in recent memory to elect an unprecedentedly diverse Democratic caucus.
The bottom line: We still do not know whether Trump can accept a compromise that can actually pass the House, now that Democrats control it. We also do not know whether Trump is willing to allow Republicans space to negotiate in this new reality, the one outside Foxlandia, in which Democrats control the lower chamber and are beholden to a younger, more diverse majority electorate that actually exists in the real world and has flatly rejected Trump’s immigration agenda, values and worldview.
All indications remain that Trump, unwilling to accept this new reality, will continue to demand total capitulation. Which means that, just as Pelosi had to do the last time Trump shut down the government — and just as Pelosi will have to do when Trump tries to squelch legitimate oversight with more rage-threats — the answer will still have to be: No.