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Something’s Rotten in the State of the Union

You think it can't get any crazier and then it just does.

Awful in countless ways from the start, where the address really went off the rails—that is, right before the parts about keeping Guantanamo Bay open and cutting off foreign aid to nations who have spoken against our declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—was when the president started talking about immigration, an issue he views with the asperity of a harbormaster turning away a plague ship. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In his State of the Union Tuesday night, Donald Trump called on the Congress “to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers—and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”

Undermine the public trust? Fail the people? Am I the only one who heard this and thought maybe he subliminally was begging the cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment on his sorry ass and put the rest of us out of our misery?

You think it can’t get any crazier and then it just does. Trump’s speech started out okay—in the sense that the teleprompter didn’t blow up and there wasn’t much in his initial rhetoric which couldn’t have been said by any past American president playing up the country’s spacious skies and fruited plains, etc.

“We have faced challenges we expected, and others we could never have imagined,” he intoned. “We have shared in the heights of victory and the pains of hardship. We have endured floods and fires and storms. But through it all, we have seen the beauty of America's soul, and the steel in America's spine.” And so on. He also called for unity and bipartisanship, filling out all the proper blank spaces in the perennial White House speechwriting game of Mad Libs.

Familiar, too, was his SOTU litany of American heroes who have saved lives, endured hardship or achieved success, a tradition begun in 1982 when Ronald Reagan introduced Lenny Skutnik, the government employee who jumped into the icy waters of the Potomac and saved a drowning plane crash survivor. Every president hopes that these worthy stories inspire and, perhaps more truthfully, that a little of the heroic shine of those brave men and women rubs off on the chief executive himself.

Like his predecessors, Trump bragged about what he perceives as his administration’s accomplishments—at great length in his case (only Bill Clinton has ever spoken longer during a State of the Union)—and with particular emphasis on his and the Congress’ cherished tax bill.

“The biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history,” he said, one of many exaggerations, distortions and outright lies in the speech. He says it all the time, but as NPR’s Jim Zarroli notes, “Both in inflation-adjusted dollars and as a percentage of GDP, the recent cuts trail the Economic Recovery Acts of 1981 passed during the first Reagan administration. They also trail cuts passed during the Truman, Johnson and Obama administrations, according to The Washington Post.”

Yes, there were lots of dissemblings like that, the prevarications we’ve come to expect from this president, as regular as breathing out and breathing in. And there was his familiar building of straw men. As with the non-existent War on Christmas (and the war on “beautiful, clean coal”), he generates false scenarios of vast mistreatment of police, the military and veterans, vows to defend the Constitution “as written” and works to undermine whatever public trust still remains in government.

But where the address really went off the rails—that is, right before the parts about keeping Guantanamo Bay open and cutting off foreign aid to nations who have spoken against our declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—was when the president started talking about immigration, an issue he views with the asperity of a harbormaster turning away a plague ship.

In the speech, he announced, “Americans are Dreamers, too”—not to bolster solidarity with those undocumented and now endangered men and women brought here as children, but to diminish and imply that they’re no one special. What’s more, like those who proclaim “All Lives Matter” in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement, it was a dog whistle, one that immediately was seized on by white supremacists like Richard Spencer.

Instead of talking about the United States as a nation of immigrants, instead of praising what those from other places have brought to our country, Trump conflated innocent Dreamers and legal immigrants with members of the violent MS-13 gang, telling stories of murder and mayhem to once again gin up fear and paranoia. He laid out his “four pillars” of immigration reform as a fair and “down the middle” compromise but in the next breath described his proposal as “legislation that fulfills my ironclad pledge to sign a bill that puts America first.”

Yes, this is our “new American moment,” as Trump proclaimed. Perfect in its jingoism and sophistry, it’s a place where the occasional high-flown flourish of rhetoric bears little resemblance to actual policy. It’s the America of close-minded bigotry, of xenophobia and authoritarianism that reflects the mindset of a man surrounding himself with nodding nationalist sycophants, a chief executive who watches nothing but Fox News.

For me, having recently been exposed to more of Fox than is reasonably healthy I now more fully understand why that notorious Trump “base” thinks the way it does—and how that thinking was reflected in his State of the Union.

Madly pirouetting as fast as it can from reality, its hosts, news anchors and pundits spin an alternative universe that puts Oz or Narnia to shame, a world in which America is one big, Caucasian history theme park but where the newer rides all have something wrong with them. If we just went back to the old-fashioned, rickety merry-go-round and roller coaster, they say, and let in nothing but white people, everything will be right again.

“USA!” Trump’s supporters on Capitol Hill cheered on Tuesday night. “USA! USA!” But when the cheering stops we still are left with a disreputable president who has dragged said same USA into an existential crisis from which it’s conceivable we may not recover.

That’s why it was uplifting to hear Joe Kennedy III deliver the Democratic Party response to Trump, saying, “Bullies may land a punch. They might leave a mark. But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future.”

Sounds great and with luck, grace and perseverance let’s hope we can make it true. It could be too late. Trump and his cronies may already have driven us smack into a wall, the republic's dead end.

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Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship

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