By Jennifer Rubin
US President Donald Trump reportedly loves the State of the Union. And why not? 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 manoeuvre in the new Congress.
This year’s State of the Union visuals, which usually favour 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 argument America will never become socialist.) The White House put out word that Trump would be offering a message of “unity”. 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 divisiveness.
Sign of diminished power
In deriding opponents of his wall as supporters of “open borders,” he sought to create division and resentment, not unity. 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 demonising immigrants. 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 demonisation of immigrants. 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.”
Nevertheless, he refused to give up on the “wall” terminology — repeating it over and over again.
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. And when it came to foreign policy, Trump returned to the dark “America First” rhetoric that characterised his campaign and has since rattled allies. Despite replete evidence that North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear weapons programme, 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”.
Telegraphed a retreat
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 signalled he wants out, he undercuts ongoing negotiations.
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 competence, it’s not even a realistic laundry list.
Most striking, his speech was shapeless and flabby, his delivery anaemic. Two years into his presidency, he’s become predictable and boring. —Washington Post
(Jennifer Rubin is a noted American journalist and political columnist)