After President Trump’s State of the Union, most analysts chose to focus on Trump’s apparent appeal for comity. A few minutes after the speech concluded, CBS’s Gayle King opened the conversation on Stephen Colbert’s live “Late Show” special by calling Trump’s speech “pretty tame”: “I did think that he tried to extend the olive branch,” King said, to Colbert’s surprise. Many wrote about Trump’s newfound apparent penchant for compromise, while a few others wrote at length about the symbolism behind the color chosen for the occasion by Democratic female lawmakers, with whom Trump had a teasing yet amicable back-and-forth that also earned the media’s attention.
Social media chose to focus on one particular viral moment in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) discovered the now multi-memed “sarcastic point clapback.” Under a normal president, these would all be perfectly acceptable news stories and takes. But Trump is not a normal president, nor was the State of the Union a normal presidential speech.
On Tuesday night, the president of the United States spent 15 minutes lying about immigration. As he has done before, he mischaracterized the supposed threat on the country’s southern border, which he described as “dangerous” and “lawless,” not the vibrant and prosperous region it truly is. He described a region in distress, full of “coyotes, cartels, drug dealers and human traffickers.” He once again misrepresented the size and the intention of the immigrant caravans that have made their way from Central America toward the border with the United States, presenting them to the American people not as desperate refugees but as an immediate danger.
He also falsely claimed El Paso had once been one of the country’s most dangerous cities, a problem the city fixed, Trump said, with the erection of his fabled “barrier.” (El Paso’s mayor wasted no time in tweeting a rebuttal.) Trump once again repeated the often disproved lie that immigrants are a burden for the economy, especially for working-class Americans. He again used tragic yet specific crimes committed by individuals to draw unfair and deeply flawed generalizations that demonize the immigrant community as a whole.
He insisted walls “work,” although he’s been proved wrong, including in his (justified) obsession with narcotics, which are mostly smuggled through legal points of entry rather than through the vast open spaces where the president wants to build his “barrier.” As is his wont, Trump repeated these misleading statements, exaggerations and flat-out lies while constantly coming back to fearmongering: the immigrant as a threat to the nation’s safety. “Tonight, I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country,” the president said to an audience that reached about 47 million.
The consequences of Trump’s nativist rhetoric are undeniable. According to a CBS poll, 72 percent of Tuesday night’s viewers agreed with Trump’s “ideas” on immigration. The number fits a pattern. Slowly, an increasing number of Americans have begun supporting the construction of a border wall. Among Republicans, Trump’s nativism has had a terrifying effect: 75 percent of Republicans identify illegal immigration as the biggest challenge facing the country — not income disparity, drug epidemics, racial inequality or gun violence. Illegal immigration. Today, 82 percent of GOP voters support Trump’s border barrier.
Who’s to blame for this terrifying trend? Trump, of course, is responsible for this wretched turn toward xenophobia and racism from the very beginning of his presidential campaign, and one hopes that history will judge him harshly. But U.S. public opinion is now following along. Either out of boredom, exhaustion or lack of moral principle, many relevant voices in American society have chosen to normalize Trump’s relentless racist messaging on immigration.
Of the president’s long list of travesties, none has been more relentless and ultimately tragic than his condemnation of the role of immigrants in American life — it’s his biggest betrayal of the country’s core beliefs. That some choose to focus on other things, however important or amusing they might be, makes them willing participants in the dismantling of one of America’s most endearing moral standards. Prejudice doesn’t allow for distractions: It needs to be rebuked at every turn and denied any sense of normalcy. The alternative leads to an abyss that negates the country’s founding ideals.