Everything is worse in the wake of Trump’s latest State of the Union Address.
I once dated a functioning alcoholic. What began as a functioning facade gave way to wobbly excuses, thinly-veiled threats and destructive behavior. At first, the tearful apologies came so infrequently that each felt like a breakthrough of some sort, new ground gained on the demon to which was once owed a duty in the name of love. But soon, they happened often, and epiphanies began to blend into a familiar script. Where I once had the refuge of novel apologies, I was left with an unfiltered view of this destructive deviation from the norm. I could talk through tonight’s tearful mea culpa, try to help my partner parse the symptoms of today’s version of their past, but what for?
The Trump administration’s latest fall from the wagon has taken a tradition with it. Trump’s second State of the Union speech was every bit as poorly worded as his time in office has been poorly spent and managed by his cabinet, advisors, and the President himself.
A day after his two-year assault on democratic values earned a special mention by the Freedom in the World report, which measures the worldwide strength of democracy, Trump used his annual address to the joint houses of congress to assault the listening comprehension of viewers nationwide.
His speech, oft-disjointed and rife with phonetic pronunciations of obscure high school vocabulary words like Dachau and chemo, according to MSNBC, spent most of its time dealing in fantasy. Playing largely to his base in the audience, a base he has seen shrink significantly since his last address, Trump laid out his plans for the union, decrying investigations and the convenient quote-unquote crisis at the southern border while rehashing Cold War rhetoric without an enemy in sight.
“Millions of our fellow citizens are watching us,” said Trump during his speech’s opening, nodding to the millions of groaning Americans who forgot that NBC had postponed the season finale of This Is Us, “gathered in this great chamber, hoping we will govern not as two parties, but as one nation.” While the unifying tone of the first moments of his speech would be largely forgotten over the following 80-plus minutes, the fine print of Trump’s call for unity would come to include roughly-hewn policy measures bolstered by outright lies and blatant exaggerations.
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Continuing his populist shtick, Trump appealed to the campaigners in the room, months after a grueling midterm election, to take unified action. “Many of us have campaigned on the same core promises, to defend American jobs and demand fair trade for American workers,” Trump said in the midst of a trade war which has imperiled local businesses from sea to shining sea, “to rebuild and revitalize our nation’s infrastructure, to reduce the price of health care and prescription drugs, to create an immigration system that is safe, lawful, modern and secure, and to pursue a foreign policy that puts America’s interests first. There is a new opportunity in American politics, if only we have the courage together to seize it.”
Trump’s “America First” policy playbook, which has pitted America against China in trade, seen America bow out of wars for little more than handshake agreements in return and resulted in American withdrawal from a U.N. committee on Human Rights, has grown increasingly unpopular with Americans of all political persuasions.
Mere weeks removed from a partial government shutdown which furloughed 800,000 federal workers over $5.7 billion in funding for a portion of a wall along our southern border, Trump’s speech meandered through mentions of World War II, the moon landing, and a host of other American accomplishments of yesteryear before asking for unity.
“Together we can break decades of political stalemate,” said the author of the longest government shutdown on record. “We can bridge all divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future.” Similar in tone to his “one American family” speech in 2018, Trump’s pleas deftly ignored his record and Twitter account, while offering nothing in the way of concrete plans to foster unity, greatness and results.
Still, “the decision is ours to make,” opined the Commander in Chief. “We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction.Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness.”
From these early oratory heights, Trump’s speech continued to outline a list of mostly false or exaggerated accomplishments on the part of the current administration. Among the verifiable victories, “Right to Try” legislation has given all of two patients access to experimental medicines, Trump’s successful rollback of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate was removed in the Republican tax bill of 2017, and The First Step Act, which gives nonviolent offenders the chance to reenter society, was passed late last year with the support of a majority of Americans as part of a criminal justice package which stopped well short of reform. Still, the half-truths and outright lies were so bountiful as to defy the limits of the typical state of the union recap.
While customary for respectable publications, quoting and opining on the full breadth of Trump’s address heaps upon his words a seriousness which they’ve yet to earn. What good does it do us to point out his decision to take credit for legislation from 2014 which makes it easier to discipline VA employees who perform poorly, or his erroneous claim that the United States has become a net-exporter of energy? Likewise, hundreds of words of discussion of his veiled threat that investigations, peace and successful legislation cannot coexist, while thrilling for those of us who wait for the arrival of a smoking gun, belabor myriad longstanding points.
After two years of Trump in office, Trump on Twitter and Trump in close contact with foreign leaders and dignitaries, this year’s address was as useless as it was overlong. Addressing it as anything more than dreck does a disservice to us all.
Little can be accomplished by reducing Trump’s State of the Union address to piecemeal bits of true-and-false. If, by tomorrow, some combination of Rudy Giuliani, Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Sanders find themselves in front of a hot mic, what are the chances that any of the aforementioned trio would treat the text of Trump’s speech with a fraction of the good faith it would take to honestly consider its merit? While the speech itself may retain some value as a record of an administration’s stated goals and objectives, the mere tradition of the State of the Union address is diminished by the cloud of bad faith that has descended upon it. We have no guarantee Trump doesn’t go three weeks without mentioning the speech or introducing any measure to turn his words into action. The opposite is equally likely.
We’re not dealing with Obama’s true-ish, sometimes-false State of the Union addresses, where anecdotes were written in as steps to proposed policy which yielded some net win or got us closer to some long-held ideal. This speech harkened back to Trump’s here-today, gone-tomorrow migrant caravan bringing bad hombres to an Anytown, USA near you. We are miles away from the Bill Clinton’s final address, which fiercely defended his legacy while arguing the merits of his tenure beyond the sex scandal that nearly ended his second term ahead of schedule. Donald Trump breezed through a thank-you to Buzz Aldrin, casually mentioned his desire to return American astronauts to space “in American rockets,” to beg the American people for unity, less than a pay period’s length away from a shutdown that ended in the defeat of his own agenda.
Even the response of the Republican party, perhaps best summed up by frequent GOP Trump gadfly Mitt Romney’s reaction to Trump’s hit-by-pitch of a base hit.
According to the former Governor of Massachusetts, Trump’s speech was “strong.”
There’s little to say for a party that caters to the whims of voters who wish their President would hurt “the right people” when its led in part by former moderates who praise a speech which struggled with syntax. Dissecting bad faith arguments by pundits, constituents, and even Presidents linked by a slogan rooted in bad faith is a fool’s errand at best.
This realization seemed evident on the part of at least some within the DNC, who countered Trump’s nonsense parade with the measured, relaxed Stacy Abrams.
Though Abrams’ rebuttal, delivered in front of a smiling audience of standing onlookers, was low on facts and figures (a departure from the well-researched, sharp Abrams seen during Georgia’s gubernatorial race) her response was a necessary connection to reality. Where Trump dealt mostly in tired cliches on the subject of healthcare, Abrams spoke to the GOP’s continued battle against the ACA and the expansion of Medicaid. Where the President failed to speak substantively to student loan debt, the LGBTQ+ community, climate change, or gun safety, Abrams made at least passing mention of the issues that plague our society and our planet, while stressing the power of the vote and the need for free and fair elections. While low on rebuttal and bereft of specifics, Abrams’ speech was effective by its refusal to engage in the fantasy laid out by Abrams’ opening act.
In the future, networks, news publications and viewers alike may be keen to follow suit.