Donald Trump’s declaration of a “New American Moment” in last night’s State of the Union address comes at a moment when Union is not in a good state. The gulf between the parties has not been so wide since Watergate. The gap between the rich and the poor has not been so wide since the Gilded Age. And the style of political life has struck a new low, with a presidency which takes its cues from the worst aspects of the media, and a media which revels in the worst aspects of the presidency.
The content of America’s economic life, however, continues to improve. Trump devoted the first third of last night’s ninety-minute speech to the good news. He claimed that in its first year, his administration had overseen the creation of “2.4m new jobs”, 200,000 of them in manufacturing. Wages, after years of stagnation, are starting to rise. Unemployment claims are at the lowest rate in 45 years. The stock market has boomed, and 401(k) savings accounts are “through the roof”.
The effects of tax reform, secured earlier this month despite Democratic opposition, have yet to be felt by the voters. But Trump was probably right to claim that most Americans will appreciate the doubling of the child tax credit, and the doubling of the tax threshold for co-filing couples. Other claims were less substantial. Is America really booming on “beautiful, clean coal”, when coal consumption in 2017 was the lowest in 40 years? Is Detroit really “running its engines again”, or idling on Obama-era subsidies?
This, after all, is a State of the Union address. The president is not constitutionally obliged to perorate on prime time like the Maximum Leader of an especially banana-rich republic. Before Woodrow Wilson, presidents merely outlined their plans in a letter to Congress. Trump, who is said to prefer an early night and a cheeseburger in bed, would presumably prefer to send his address by Twitter.
But Trump, like Wilson, is a president who likes the sound of his own voice and thinks everyone else should too. And so appeals to bread — an average family with two children and an income of $75,000 will have more dough in its pockets — mingle with circuses, and appeals to hearts, flags, national unity, the greatness of America, and the making of it ever greater.
With this address, as with the President’s evening burger, the meat came in the middle, between two wedges of pabulum. After reciting a thick wad of achievements, Trump stated some legislative goals.
Noting that the FDA under his administration had approved record numbers of generic drugs, Trump identified the opioid crisis and affordable prescription drugs as healthcare priorities. He did not mention replacing the Affordable Care Act.
He called for bipartisan support in securing $1.5 trillion for rebuild “our crumbling infrastructure”, with some of the money coming from PPP-style deals.
Where Obama had suggested that all Americans should go to college, Trump wants to invest in job training and “vocational schools”.
Most important of all, Trump described the “four pillars” on which he expects to build a bipartisan deal on immigration reform and border security:
A path to citizenship for 1.8m illegal residents who were brought to the US as children — much higher than the 800,000 people covered by Obama’s DACA programme.
In return, Trump wants the funds for sealing the southern border, and building “a great wall”.
Tightening immigration rules, including an end to the visa lottery and the “catch and release” policy, in which those arrested on suspicion of visa violations are released pending trial.
An end to “chain migration”, with residents to be permitted to bring in only “spouses and minor children”.
After this, we were back to the second, somewhat stale, half of the bun. There was nothing new on foreign policy, apart from the issuing of an order that the Department of Defense look into keeping open the prison at Guantanamo Bay. This is not that new, either, as it fits Trump’s pattern of undoing all traces of the Obama era. The same can be said for Trump’s pointed support of protests against the Iranian regime, and his refusal to accommodate North Korea.
He spoke of a “new tide of optimism” and a “clear vision” of the future, but a presidency that combines economic optimism with the constant taint of scandal and mud-slinging by Twitter does not offer a clear vision of a united future. When Trump suggested that his outline of immigration reform would produce a “fair compromise where nobody gets everything they want”, the Republicans cheered, but some Democrats groaned. The truth is, significant numbers of Americans are hopelessly divided against each other along party lines. Trump is an intuitive exploiter of division, as well as an intuitive sentimentalist.
His first State of the Union speech whipped up the Republicans, and split the Democrats. When Trump, taking a swipe at NFL players who have taken a knee in protest, spoke of standing for the national anthem, Nancy Pelosi joined the standing ovation, then looked around and realised that the Democrats around her were still sitting. When Trump called for national unity, Chuck Schumer got up and applauded, but Pelosi stayed in her seat, and appeared to be trying to remove salad from her teeth with her tongue. When Trump said that unemployment among African Americans was the lowest in 45 years, none of the Congressional Black Caucus clapped.
Normally, the opposition issues a single response. In 2015, Michelle Bachmann gave a second Republican response, on behalf of the Tea Party. This year, five Democrats spoke in addition to the official respondent, Joseph Kennedy III. As the grandson of Robert Kennedy and great-nephew of President Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy III represents a diminishing point of consensus, a link to the Democratic Party of FDR and JFK.
“We all feel the fault lines of a fractured country,” Kennedy said. The same fault lines run through his party. The other Democratic speakers reflect the Balkanising effects of identity politics, and the hollowing of the Democrats by the Clintons and Obama, who aligned the party with big donors, not working men and women. Elizabeth Guzman of Virginia spoke in Spanish. Bernie Sanders and the Working Families Party issued rebuttals from the Left. Maxine Waters, an African American Democrat from California, boycotted Trump’s address, and attacked it on Black Entertainment Television. Mark Ruffalo and Michael Moore delivered celebrity disapproval.
All this plays into Trump’s hands. Appeals to “unity” and the flag, and promises of investment and security are met with the outrage of the elites. Meanwhile, the Democrats struggle to present a united front against him. Some Democrats hold marginal constituencies. Others are consumed with the struggle over the party’s future identity. Still others are consumed by outrage.
To get a deal on immigration reform and money for border security and infrastructure, Trump needs the support of Senate Democrats and, if the November midterms go badly, even House Democrats too. Not all of them, but just enough to get what he wants. The unspoken policy goal in last night’s address is to keep the Democrats outraged and divided. If they are divided, Trump can pick off the votes he needs. If they are outraged, they prove that he has not forgotten the people who elected him. Democratic outrage gratifies the Democratic base, but it is also the oxygen of Republican populism.