We learned a few important things following the President’s speech to Congress. First, we now know that he is able to read from a teleprompter, after all, and stick close to a script for an extended period. Second, someone in the Administration got the message that it might be a good idea to give a major speech that doesn’t make it seem as if the apocalypse is scheduled for next Tuesday. On both counts, some are giving the President high marks for showing a less incendiary and more statesmanlike side.
However, it’s fair to say that these are relative assessments based on the fact that the bar had been set very low from previous public performances. And while the speech wasn’t laden with the level of vitriol that dominated prior efforts, the president played loose with facts (how many people are out of work?) and continued to blame most current problems on his predecessor. The speech also included a troubling moment of political deflection that played on the profound sadness of a slain soldier’s wife, providing Trump with an opportunity to seem sympathetic and muting concerns about the operation itself.
This speech was a performance in all respects, representing an attempt to reset and appear at least somewhat presidential (or at least not totally unhinged). Considering that Trump actually worked in television we might have expected a better presentation—but then again he basically played himself on TV, whereas this was a different sort of role with a premium on more measured communication. So on style, perhaps we can give him a Participation Oscar for at least showing up and completing the task. But there were many substantive aspects to the speech that are highly problematic in their implications.
Others have done a great job dissecting the address, and there’s no need to try and replicate that effort here. Instead, it’s worth focusing on the worldview articulated in this speech, which was something of a synthesis of the Administration’s campaign rhetoric and legislative talking points, but also included a strong sense of how they are projecting all of this into the near future. Indeed, the president continually referred to the coming 250th anniversary (in 2026) of the nation’s founding, almost as if (a) his policies would define that legacy and, even more troublingly, (b) he intended to still be running the operation.
At the core of his "vision" (if it can coherently be organized as such) are two related premises. One is a strong tendency toward nationalistic, isolationist, and protectionist perspectives, which represent an extreme form of American Exceptionalism in the stated aim to put "America First." The second is a clear willingness to leverage the future as a means to artificially inflate the coffers of the present, as evidenced by items such as prioritizing pipelines and fossil fuel jobs without any mention of environmental or climate concerns, as well as the clear impetus toward deregulation in all spheres as a means of enhancing corporate profits and priorities. These core themes need to be further unpacked.
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Even beyond the obvious dangers of exacerbating hyper-nationalistic tendencies—including sparking a resurgence of hate crimes and the like, as well as the historical correlates with authoritarianism—there are other causes for concern. An exclusionary worldview flies in the face of living in an interconnected world, and compartmentalizes problems in ways that render them unsolvable. In ecological terms, it is clear that environmental issues know no borders; likewise, matters of refugeeism and terrorism don’t begin and end at a single nation’s borders, and must be addressed at the roots rather than the effects. As well, patterns of "othering" set people against one another, depict problems in simplistic binary terms, and displace responsibility onto already vulnerable entities, all of which are counterproductive.
The issue of mortgaging the future is even more complex. The presidential election represented a dichotomization of voters based on many factors, including age. Some older constituents may buy into the rhetoric of boosting the present at the expense of coming decades, but such does not resonate well with younger demographics, who are already saddled with the reality of a world defined by existential crises from climate and war to inequality and hopelessness. Intergenerational justice isn’t merely a nice thought to entertain—it’s a moral imperative to try and leave the world in a better place than we found it. Flouting this basic proposition by pitting today’s interests over tomorrow’s existence is a Faustian bargain that is ultimately self-defeating. It also reflects a disconcerting lack of empathy and imagination.
In this sense, and apart from the vicissitudes of political economy, today we are faced with a dangerous tendency to flout the inherent interconnectedness of our lives and our futures. There are no walls high enough to alter this reality, and resorting to illusory rhetoric doesn’t change actual facts. Empty gestures toward being "great again" at the expense of others and the world around us aren’t simply misguided, but run the risk of exacerbating the underlying issues through detachment and the misallocation of resources—including precious time itself. Whatever style points one might want to accord Trump’s tepid performance, we ought to be skeptical about any public figure who promises us everything but asks nothing of us except for unquestioning acceptance. This isn’t worthy of any award.