President Trump reportedly loves the State of the Union. And why not? It’s a narcissistic dream. Both houses of Congress, Supreme Court justices, the diplomatic corps and all the press are there. One can understand why Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to withdraw the invitation until the government opened might have been the savviest maneuver in the new Congress.
This year’s State of the Union visuals, which usually favor the president, were not optimal for Trump. First, sitting in her speaker’s chair. Pelosi hovered over Trump during his speech. As if that were not enough of an intrusion into his supposedly solo act, scores of Democratic women in suffragist white populated the audience. Both reminded viewers that the mostly all-male GOP House majority is gone.
Moreover, Trump’s slow delivery lacked energy and seemed designed to lull rather than engage his audience. Granted there were more Democrats in the room, but applause was hardly robust or sustained — and only occasionally bipartisan. A reference to the large number of women in Congress elicited a chant of "USA! USA!” Between the speed of his delivery and the length of his remarks, the president’s speech felt interminable. (The same chant was deployed by a clique of Republicans, for example, in response to Trump’s straw-man argument that America will never become socialist.)
The White House put out word that Trump would be offering a message of “unity” (probably to prevent laughter from incredulous lawmakers). And indeed he began with platitudes about winning for the country and not for one’s party. However, as is so often the case, he could not avoid pettiness and divisiveness. In deriding opponents of his wall as supporters of “open borders,” he sought to create division and resentment, not unity. Saying his agenda is not a “Republican” or “Democrat” agenda — a pejorative term for the Democratic Party — is not a way to engender good feelings.
If anything, his plea for unity was a thinly veiled attempt to fend off investigations. ("If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way! We must be united at home to defeat our adversaries abroad.”) Soon enough he was back to hyping the border “crisis” and demonizing immigrants. Thankfully he made no mention of duct-taped women.
Trump did, however, continue to insist falsely that trafficking and drug smuggling are problems on the physical border where in reality these overwhelmingly occur at ports of entry. And again came the exaggerations and demonization of immigrants: “Just yesterday, an MS-13 gang member was taken into custody for a fatal shooting on a subway platform in New York City. We are removing these gang members by the thousands, but until we secure our border they’re going to keep streaming back in. Year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens.” This is not a call for unity but an effort to whip up fear.
However, in a sign of his diminished power, he severely downsized his so-called wall. He said his border package includes “humanitarian assistance, more law enforcement, drug detection at our ports, closing loopholes that enable child smuggling, and plans for a new physical barrier, or wall, to secure the vast areas between our ports of entry.” He stressed, “This is a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier — not just a simple concrete wall. It will be deployed in the areas identified by border agents as having the greatest need, and as these agents will tell you, where walls go up, illegal crossings go way down.” Nevertheless, he refused to give up on the “wall” terminology — repeating it over and over again like a child. He also bizarrely hyped legal immigration, seeming to suggest a big increase in legal immigration, which he in fact has advocated reducing.
The portion of the speech devoted to illegal immigration — which is at record low levels — tells us much about his fear of losing the base and the paucity of other initiatives. It certainly showed that his adviser Stephen Miller remained in firm control of immigration policy.
On trade he appears not to have learned the basics. “Therefore, we recently imposed tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods — and now our Treasury is receiving billions of dollars,” he said. This is curious since tariffs are paid by consumers to producers of goods. In these transactions, money does not fill the Treasury’s coffers.
And when it came to foreign policy, Trump returned to the dark “America First” rhetoric that characterized his campaign and has since rattled allies. Once more he made the United States out to be the victim: “For years, the United States was being treated very unfairly by NATO — but now we have secured a $100 billion increase in defense spending from NATO allies.”
Despite replete evidence that North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear weapons program, he insisted, “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea. Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.” Really? He continues to pursue nuclear weapons and subjugate his people, and we give him photo-ops. That’s the sort of arrangement hawks such as national security adviser John Bolton used to mock.
Without explaining a strategy or a desired outcome, he did what he had sworn he would not — telegraph a retreat. “Our brave troops have now been fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years. . . . As a candidate for president, I pledged a new approach. Great nations do not fight endless wars.” Actually they win wars, or at least don’t give up on terms wholly unsatisfactory to those we have fought with. Having signaled he wants out, he undercuts ongoing negotiations. (“As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counterterrorism.”) Had President Barack Obama made such statements, Republicans would have condemned him.
At times Trump revealed the total incoherence of his posturing on Iran. “To ensure this corrupt dictatorship never acquires nuclear weapons, I withdrew the United States from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal,” he said — without explaining how the two are connected. In fact, we have no coherent Iran policy.
The speech, as so many other presidents have discovered, inevitably becomes a laundry list — AIDS, trade, fighting cancer, women’s empowerment, etc. Given Trump’s lack of credibility and competence, it’s not even a realistic laundry list.
As for the feeble effort to elicit unity — which he equates with ceasing investigations into his misconduct — his habitual dishonesty and urge to poke and jab at opponents make him a peculiarly unfit president to deliver a message of unity.
Most striking, his speech was shapeless and flabby, his delivery anemic. Non-memorable lines were uttered. Two years into his president, he’s become predictable and boring. Sad.