The State of the Union address is more than a steward’s report on budgets, legislative priorities and his executive agenda; it is an opportunity for a sermon, and sermons mean more than what they express in words. The ceremony of it all is crucial, as is the presence of all three branches of government convened for this particular pronouncement. The address is recommended in the Constitution itself, one of the holy scriptures of American life, and its provenance drapes it with the weight of history. In a young country built on an idea, these episodes of civil religion are the closest thing we have to a unitive tradition.
But this is the real state of our union, the condition of our collective us-ness: The very idea of America lies wounded, too compromised and discredited to support anything like a vibrant civic nationalism or a vast loyalty to ideals such as liberty and justice for all. Confidence in American institutions — from the criminal justice system to newspapers to Congress — is scraping along historic lows. Trust in political leaders and the ability of other Americans to make sound democratic decisions is likewise historically low. As of December, only 18 percent of respondents to a Pew Research Center survey said they trust the government; even President Richard Nixon never saw numbers so grim. The bad news goes on. Some 71 percent of Americans think the economy is rigged, and they’re right. Compared with citizens of other liberal democracies, Americans hardly bother to vote. Freedom feels more and more distant, less and less satisfying.
You can feel it, an aching in the ether. And all the old, familiar specters that arise to greet this kind of national disillusionment have come again: ethnically inflected nationalism, scapegoating, a vague and general sense that danger is looming. President Trump has tapped into the nationalist response to our current malaise largely because there was no widespread sense of civic trust strong enough to hold him back; “Tonight, I want to talk about what kind of future we are going to have, and what kind of nation we are going to be,” Trump said during his address, “All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family.” He went on to promise “a government that shows [Americans] the same love and loyalty in return,” in part by enforcing “immigration policies that focus on the best interests of American workers and American families.” The distinction between immigrants and Americans could not have been more clear, despite the fact that the categories overlap hugely; it’s a classic nationalist feint, creating thick borders between us and them so that we will feel more like an us.
But it won’t work. America simply isn’t a nation-state; it was neither conceived to nor can it foster the “organic” nationalism Trumpish conservatives now seem fixated on. Nations are made up of people who claim to share certain unchosen characteristics: language, ethnicity, historic religion, mystical destiny. In America, not only is it the factual case that we do not share such things, but it’s rather the point of our existence as a country — or was, once. Liberal democracies prize freedom and self-determination, so it follows that Americans are made by beliefs and choices, not by blood and tongue. American nationalism can shatter lives and breed violence, but it won’t ever amount to the creation of an American nation. Such a thing does not exist.
Trump, for one, barely seems to understand nationalism, though he claims the title for himself. While nationalism is theoretically about deep and powerful bonds, Trump’s view of America is decidedly transactional: It’s a business, and he’ll run the place like a boss; soldiers who die for the country “knew what [they] signed up for.” Even if banishing “dreamers” and locking out low-skilled immigrants could create what isn’t there — a durable and genuine feeling of American unity — Trump would hardly be the one to lead the charge. He has no idea what he’s doing; he should have been so easy to beat. Like American nationalism, there’s just nothing there. And yet they’re prevailing, the two of them, together.
Trump promised Tuesday to “restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government,” to “rebuild America’s strength and confidence at home” and to “[restore] our strength and standing abroad.” His only insight is that people want to feel better, want to feel some sense of togetherness and trust and certitude, and it has come down to this. Trump’s methods won’t work; his approach won’t fix it. Instead, innocent people will be injured, and the same forces that already control our lives — the criminal greed of the rich, which can at any time crush entire economies, as in 2008; the whims of markets and corporations, which can arbitrarily dislocate you from kith and kin; the corruption of politicians by all of the aforementioned, leaving us without any hope of protection from the vagaries of the moneyed few — will still control them. And the same void, the same absence of vision and paranoid nihilism that cleared Trump’s path to the Capitol, will gape wide and wider.