President Donald Trump, his chin lifted defiantly, gave his first State of the Union address Tuesday as two of his main enablers, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, looked on adoringly from behind.
The speech invoked a powerful dichotomy: First, with Trump as president, all the wealth and prosperity he had promised to Americans was materializing, magically and with great speed. Second, predators everywhere—immigrants, North Koreans, Islamic State terrorists—were coming for Americans, and Trump would save them with his awe-inspiring displays of militarism. To make his points, Trump paraded one “hero” after another in the audience, whose sometimes tear-filled and always grateful faces were meant to reflect the population of a country that Trump was elevating to “greatness.”
It was a performance worthy of the trust that Republicans have placed in Trump to fulfill their wildest, most fantastical goals. It was especially intended to eclipse the increasingly political controversy around special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump, the dirt dredged up by the best-selling tell-all book “Fire and Fury” and the legislative chaos of the recent government shutdown.
A longtime fan of hyperbole, Trump used the words “great” or “greatest” 15 times during his speech. The word “best” showed up four times, and “tremendous” and “massive” twice each. If he was trying harder to weave an alternative reality of the state of the nation, he couldn’t have done a better job. After all, he has an extremely skeptical electorate to convince. According to Gallup, Trump went into his State of the Union address with the lowest poll numbers of any president finishing up his first year since the polling firm began keeping track in 1945.
While painting this powerful picture of the U.S. economy, Trump also introduced his favorite demons. These scapegoats are ones that he has repeatedly vilified since his rise to political prominence: the immigrant at home, the black athlete who takes a knee, the terrorist abroad—tropes that offer the perfect bogeymen waiting in the wings to strip innocent Americans of their hopes and dreams. In fact, in a not-so-subtle reference to undocumented youth, Trump effectively claimed that American citizens were his priority. He said:
My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans—to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.
Recipients of the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) have remained relentless in their activism for immigration reform, especially after Trump canceled the program last year. Demanding a “clean” DREAM Act, which would give them legal status without conditions, these self-described Dreamers have won sympathy and support even among some Republicans.
But Trump made it clear in his speech that citizens were his only priority and that immigrants were effectively de facto criminals. In a shameless ploy to demonize all immigrants, Trump showcased two families whose daughters had been killed by members of the MS-13 gang. The parents whose grief he basely exploited were people of color—likely a deliberate ploy to protect him from accusations of racism. “Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors,” said Trump. In bringing up this case, he made it clear that he considered Dreamers to be potential criminals and murderers. By this logic, the only people who could ever be let into the country are ones that can be predictably guaranteed to never commit crimes—an impossible bar. Already immigrants commit fewer crimes than citizens. But as is often the case, Trump does not let facts get in the way of his version of reality.
Trump also went after legal immigrants, in particular those who migrate through sponsorship by family members. Trump boasted that his immigration plan “protects the nuclear family by ending chain migration.” Do legal immigrants and their spouses and kids really need protection from the immediate relatives they would be sponsoring? “A single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” said Trump, addressing his Republican allies in Congress and his ardent anti-immigrant supporters watching at home. As an immigrant to this country, I wish it were indeed simple to sponsor my relatives (not that there are many who are eager to enter these days). In repeating a favored lie of xenophobic forces, Trump obscured the reality of so-called “chain migration” and the longtime lines involved in bringing family members into the U.S. He also, of course, failed to mention that his own family has benefited from this type of residency sponsorship.
On the international front, Trump painted yet another vivid picture of menacing enemies. “Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups,” he said, adding that “[w]hen possible, we annihilate them.” Echoing the logic of totalitarian dictators, he continued, “In confronting these dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense.” To this end, Trump promised to build up our nuclear arsenal, flood an already overfunded military with yet more of our tax dollars and keep the internationally condemned prison at Guantanamo Bay open.
In short, Trump invoked a series of terrifying enemies ready to attack Americans and countered that narrative with multiple noble “heroes” throughout his speech who, like him, were protecting God-fearing, law-abiding American citizens. On the infrastructure plan, which was supposed to have been the centerpiece of his speech, he was short on details. In a speech that ran more than 5,000 words long, he spent only 185 discussing his ambitious plan, homing in only on one concrete fact: his demand that Congress raise $1.5 trillion to fund it.
Overall, Trump’s speech was marked only by the smug defiance of an authoritarian, racist leader and the bellicose proclamations echoing the white supremacist movements that first elevated him into power.