There has always been an irony that the President who first gained national fame as a star of a reality TV show has waged the biggest battle of his presidency against reality itself.
Last night Donald Trump opened his first State of the Union address by declaring his passionate desire for unity. Now, there are very few things that Trump supporters and opponents agree on, but the idea that Trump is passionately seeking unity? Pretty much everyone in the country can disagree with that.
Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters would tell you that his appeal lies precisely in his political incorrectness. They would tell you that they love the fact that he says out loud what they secretly believe. They love the fact that Trump called a broad swath of African nations “shitholes.” They support a guy who equated neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and white supremacists with those who protested such bigotry. They would tell you that they love the fact that he says things that piss off those liberal intellectual elites. Unity? Trump supporters adore the fact that most mornings he writes tweets that are precisely intended to bludgeon, vilify, and slander segments of our society that they loathe.
As so began the latest chapter in Donald Trump vs. Reality, the epic struggle that threatens our democracy, our sanity, and the safety of our species.
There will be many commentators who gush that Trump carried himself with gravitas, appeared measured and thoughtful, and rose to the solemn occasion. Puh-lease. Please study history, or at very least, current events. Every time Donald Trump reads a script off a teleprompter, a certain percentage of news industry pundits are fooled again. They conclude that Trump has finally “pivoted,” and that from now on he will be “presidential.” Long time Trump watchers know that there have been any number of situations in which Trump has been “handled:” his inner circle insists that in an occasion filled with risk, he must read an extremely carefully crafted speech verbatim. As canny MSNBC commentator Nicole Wallace noted before Trump even began to speak, every single time the pundits think Trump has finally stepped up, they awaken the next morning and learn that Trump has already tweeted recklessly about Muslims, NFL players, or some Hollywood star that he detests. This time, she assured us, will be no different… you can expect the next version of “shithole country” before the end of the week.
The right word for this State of the Union was that it was immensely predictable, and actually took the standard conventions of such addresses to a tasteless level. It has become the custom for Presidents of both parties to invite a small group of “ordinary people who have done extraordinary things” to sit next to the First Lady, and to be called out as examples of the selflessness, charity, and essential goodness of the American people. Donald Trump filled an entire section of seating with examples of such “real life Americans,” and his speech was largely bland self-aggrandizement in between heart-rending stories of the anguish and loss that these Americans have experienced. For Donald Trump, the use of real people became a cheap rhetorical gimmick to advance a broader thesis that immigrants are murderers. The people that Donald Trump featured were as often victims as champions, manipulated to make points that Trump could never have supported with facts.
An example: Trump singled out a boy from California who pioneered a campaign to have flags placed on the graves of veterans. The boy and his story are impressive, indeed. Unfortunately, Trump spun out this tale so that he could land on the idea that truly patriotic Americans respect the flag… and they stand for the national anthem. It was all just a long-winded way to diss the African-American NFL players who have knelt during the anthem. Usually these stories of real individual Americans are introduced in the State of the Union as uplifting rhetorical devices to inspire and pull people together. For Donald Trump, they were gimmicks to stoke anger and division. Unity, indeed.
Trump spent a good amount of his long-winded one-hour and twenty minute speech on safe pablum: we feel bad for victims of hurricanes and floods, we love our fire fighters, our gutsy EMT professionals, our police, and our men and women in military service, and we love hard-working Americans. All fine. Trump predictably sucked in every possible atom of credit for the economy, sloppily exaggerating economic indicators to aggrandize what he wants to claim credit for.
Then, for a sustained period, Trump shifted gears and talked about all of the things that he intended to accomplish in the future. His urgent appeal for a bipartisan infrastructure bill probably sounded great to viewers who have spent most of the past year watching Game of Thrones, and who therefore may not have noticed that an infrastructure bill was one of the things Trump promised to pass last year. Trump brashly talked about how he intended to renegotiate trade agreements and the Iran nuclear deal. Throughout this section, Trump appeared to be very proud to be simply continuing to promise to do things that he failed to do in his first year in office.
Trump's call for a trillion and a half dollars in infrastructure spending occurred less than a week after a government shutdown due to Congress's inability to agree on how tight government spending dollars are to be allocated, and mere days before another showdown looms. Trump's tax bill dramatically reduced the corporate tax rates. Small wonder that Trump did not address the question of where the trillion-plus dollars for infrastructure will come from.
The most substantive portion of the speech was when Trump laid out his proposal for immigration reform. He characterized his policy as a shift from what he decried as a chaotic and random process to a finely tuned “merit based” system, in which the United States will admit only persons who have impeccable educational credentials and some mysterious ability to convey their superior potential to love our country. “Merit based” clearly appears to be at odds with the very words found at the Statue of Liberty, which defines our immigration policy as an embracing outreach to the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to be free. You know… all those people who actually built the United States in the first place.
Trump sprinkled references to our police and our ICE agents throughout his speech. His reverence for such local law enforcement agents seemed to be a huge effort to compensate for the fact that his administration is currently waging a holy war against the FBI, attempting to discredit and undermine the most prominent law enforcement agency in the nation. In one hour and twenty minutes, the FBI and the CIA did not merit a single mention.
Which is probably just as well.
That was, after all, the biggest question mark going into the address. After a year of shouting fake news and that the investigation into Russian collusion was a “witch hunt,” Donald Trump did not even mention the elephant in a room dominated by elephants. Trump never even hinted at the investigation into his own administration that is gaining momentum on a daily basis. This, indeed, is perhaps the definitive reason to label Trump’s State of the Union a warmed-over conventional nerf ball. If Trump really was the kind of person who would dare to say what was on the minds of his supporters, he would have had the guts to trash-talk the investigation in his State of the Union the way he routinely does on Twitter. There were several delicious moments when Trump thundered about the need for accountability in government... said the man who is scheming in every possible way to shut down the investigation of his own potential criminal activity.
Yes, some will say that we saw a new Trump last night. Some will say that he “pivoted.” All that proves is that you actually can fool some of the people all of the time. Indeed, polls indicate that the "permanently fooled" represent about 40% of the population. The rest of us are saddled with a functional relationship with reality.
Our bet is with Nicole Wallace. By Friday morning, Trump will be back on his Samsung Galaxy, and there will be a seismic explosion. Perhaps Rod Rosenstein will be fired, another Stormy Daniels will materialize, or maybe Donald Trump will brazenly insult the people of Canada. Who knows what it will be. We only know that it will happen.
Sure, Donald, the state of our union is actually pretty decent considering the carnage you've wrought in your first year in office. And if you leave out all the degrading and embarrassing things you've done -- the bigotry, misogyny, the assertions of "fake news," the venomous twitter rage, the insults to our allies and the pandering to tyrants, your efforts to undermine the FBI, and the fact that you are the subject of the biggest investigation into allegations of criminal behavior by the President since Watergate, then perhaps you can conclude that the state of the union is great.
Which is to say that this union is holding up despite you, not because of you.
All we saw last night was Donald Trump’s State of Delusion.
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