Last week, President Trump was asked by reporters what tone he expected to strike in his State of the Union.
"I think it's unification,” Trump replied, going on to add that he would also talk about industry, given that he was in the middle of an event with manufacturers.
In short order, he returned to the theme of unity.
“We’ve have incredible Republican support,” he said. “The problem is, the Democrats — you know, when they say, ‘We don’t want to build …’ — as an example, ‘We don’t want to build a wall because it doesn’t work or because it’s immoral.’ Well, it’s also immoral the people that come into our country that shouldn’t be here and kill people. That’s immoral, too. That’s a lot more immoral.”
“So — but I really think it’s going to be a speech that’s going to cover a lot of territory,” Trump concluded. “But part of it is going to be unity.”
You would be forgiven for finding it a bit jarring to see Trump glide from unity to casting his political opponents as being soft on murder and then back to unity. You are not forgiven, though, if you haven’t by now figured out that Trump’s constant refrain of national unity is always abandoned in favor of his own political whims.
“Believe it or not, I’m a unifier,” Trump said at a campaign speech in March 2016. “I’m going to unify the country.” It was, according to Factba.se, one of the earliest times that Trump had made this pledge on the campaign trail.
He then made a specific prediction.
“I’m going to unify blacks and whites — I’m going to unify. And we are not unified now,” he said. “You know, when we had an African American president, the one thing I said, I said, great, because we’ll have much more unity. We’ll have the African Americans, the whites, we’ll have something. Nothing happened. Nothing happened. It’s worse now than ever before. We are going to unify our country.”
Trump heralded a poll in which he said he was winning 25 percent of the black vote. Exit polls indicate that he ended up winning 8 percent. His approval among African Americans stands at 6 percent, according to recent Post-ABC News polling.
There are any number of reasons Trump hasn’t made significant inroads with the black community, despite his constant insistence that he has delivered greatly for black Americans by dint of the unemployment rate dropping further during his administration. Foremost among them, of course, is that his policy initiatives have centered almost entirely on things requested by his political base, which doesn’t overlap heavily with the black community. More subtly, his determined focus to unwind President Barack Obama’s legacy has, at times, included scaling back things Obama implemented that were meant to improve the lives of black Americans.
In March 2016, though, this vision of unity was distant. More important was Trump’s unifying the Republican Party in the hope of earning the party’s presidential nomination. In an interview with The Post’s Robert Costa that same month, Costa asked how Trump would unite a party fractured by a competitive campaign.
“I think the first thing I have to do is win. Winning solves a lot of problems,” Trump said. “And I have two people left. We started off with 17 people. I have two people left. And one of the problems I have is that when I hit people, I hit them harder maybe than is necessary. And it’s almost impossible to reel them back.”
He revisited that “winning solves a lot of problems” idea a bit later in the interview.
“I bring rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have. I think it was … I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do,” he said. “I also bring great unity out, ultimately. I’ve had many occasions like this, where people have hated me more than any human being they’ve ever met. And after it’s all over, they end up being my friends. And I see that happening here.”
It’s certainly true that Trump’s past opponents have been mollified. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has, unexpectedly, become one of Trump’s most fervent champions. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has been more grudgingly supportive. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has to some extent kept his distance. But each of them needs something from Trump: approval (or at least non-hatred) from Trump’s loyal, vocal base. Calling this unity is perhaps a stretch.
Often, Trump framed his expectations of unity in the context of the military. (“It is time to follow the example of our amazing veterans, who work together across racial lines, across income lines, across all lines — in unity of mission and purpose,” he said in July 2016. “Let them be our guide.”) By August 2016, after Stephen K. Bannon had taken over as campaign chairman, Trump worked a more sweeping line about unity into his stump speech.
He offered an early version in Michigan that month.
“Voters, not special interests, will be in charge finally,” he said. “We are going to bring our country together again. We have a divided country. It’s totally divided. The era of division will be replaced with a future of unity, total unity. We will love each other. We will have one country. Everybody will work together.”
He moved to reframe his campaign slogan as being about unity.
“When I talk about making America great again,” he said, “I’m talking about making it great again for Everyone — but especially for all of the Americans who have been left behind. We are the campaign of unity, and we will deliver amazing things for all of our people.”
When he won, his prepared comments included a call for unity.
“Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division — have to get together,” he said. “To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me. For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”
A few hours earlier, he had been asked during an interview with Breitbart News if he bought Hillary Clinton’s campaign rhetoric about unity.
“Yea, called deplorables, irredeemable. You know, a few little beauties like that,” he said. “Look, I think she would not be a good president. I think that she’s not an inspiring person. Our country is very divided, as you know. We’re going to bring great unity to the country.”
If your expectation on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, based on those comments, was that Trump’s presidency would focus on finding middle-ground policy solutions and avoid name-calling, you’ve probably been disappointed.
Following the protests that erupted after his victory, Trump offered a message that Thanksgiving that was similarly centered on the theme of unity.
“I am asking you to join me in this effort,” he said. “It is time to restore the bonds of trust between citizens. Because when America is unified, there is nothing beyond our reach, and I mean absolutely nothing.”
In his inaugural speech, he repeated that argument about the power of unity but framed in a more subtle articulation of what he was hoping for: “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity."
In short order, Trump set about implementing many of the more controversial of his campaign promises, including a ban on migration from predominantly Muslim countries. Over the first two years of his presidency, he’s repeatedly identified as his chief successes the installation of conservative judges — including the controversial confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh — and the tax reform that focused on corporations and high-wage earners.
At various points of his presidency, he tried to again argue that his political vision was about bringing the United States together, as when he said that his America First slogan was “about coming together as one family — one big, beautiful American family.”
Americans expressed disagreement with that idea last November, though, handing Trump and his party sweeping losses in the House and at the state level nationally.
In a news conference after those losses, Trump asserted that he expected to work in unity with the newly ascendant Democrats.
“There are many things we can get along on without a lot of trouble — that we agree very much with them, and they agree with us. I would like to see bipartisanship. I would like to see unity,” he said. “And I think we have a very good chance of — and maybe not on everything, but I think we have a very good chance of seeing that.”
A little over a month later, goaded by conservative media, Trump decided against approving a bill that would fund several government agencies, and the longest government shutdown in history got underway. Why? Because Trump refused to abandon his pledge to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
No moment crystallizes Trump’s approach to unity better than his response to the death of a counterprotester during a pro-Confederate rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. After initially lamenting the behavior of “both sides” of the debate, he offered a scripted speech that was better tailored to a feud that involved any number of openly racist actors.
“In times such as these,” he said, “America has always shown its true character, responding to hate with love, division with unity and violence with an unwavering resolve for justice. … We will defend and protect the sacred rights of all Americans, and we will work together so that every citizen in this blessed land is free to follow their dreams in their hearts, and to express the love and joy in their souls.”
The day after that, though, he angrily returned to his original argument, saying that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the debate in Charlottesville, comments that were broadly seen as reinforcing his original instinct to give many of the racist actors a pass.
Shortly after the events in Charlottesville, he held a political rally in which he complained about how his response had been covered.
“I said, ‘We will defend or protect the sacred rights of all Americans.’ All is capitalized times five,” he said. “Not just you. ‘And we will work together so that every citizen — every citizen is free to follow their dreams and their hearts, and to express the love and joy in their souls.’ ”
He noted that he had criticized neo-Nazis and the KKK.
“I got them all. So they’re having a hard time. So what are they saying, right? It should have been sooner,” he said, dismissing the criticism over his comments as being about how soon they were offered. “He’s a racist. It should have been sooner, okay.”
His call for unity after Charlottesville was not viewed as a unifying call, and Trump said he didn’t see why.
This pattern happens a lot.