You knew Donald Trump wasn’t going to pull off the message of “unity” he claimed would be the theme of his State of the Union address.
Having lost the government shutdown staredown with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and then coming humbly into the House of Representatives a week late, after the Democratic Speaker refused to let him deliver the address on schedule while 800,000 federal employees were locked out, Trump was facing his worst enemy: his own fragile ego.
The unity stuff lasted for barely three minutes of a nearly hour-and-a-half-long address.
The rambling, combative, defensive speech, which began with a call to Americans to “choose greatness,” veered into a McCarthyite attack on the scourge of domestic socialism (cut to long camera shots of grumpy Senator Bernie Sanders and radiant Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez); a ghoulish section on babies being “ripped from the womb” and “executed” at birth, (cue standing ovation from anti-abortion fanatic Vice President Mike Pence); a surprise announcement that Trump is withdrawing us from the medium-range missile treaty with Russia (cut to Joint Chiefs sitting, stony-faced, under a single thought bubble, “What??”); and, of course, the line that made Pelosi, seated decorously on the dias behind Trump, openly laugh: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”
Toward the end, Trump’s speech devolved into a series of random platitudes so disjointed it seemed like the product of frantic, last-minute plagiarism of other State of the Union speeches.
The “USA!” chants lent Republicans in Congress the appearance of frat boys in a ritual dominance display
The highlight of the night was seeing so many female members of Congress dressed in suffragist white. When Trump took credit for the record number of women in Congress, those women, elected on a wave of resistance to Trump, sat incredulously for a moment, then rose to their feet to high-five each other, applaud and, turning away from the President, lift their hands to “raise the roof.”
When the women got too rowdy, a chorus of white Republican men stood up and began shouting “USA! USA!” They did it again several times during Trump’s speech, including when he said “We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” The “USA!” chants, lending Republicans in Congress the appearance of a bunch of frat boys engaged in a ritual dominance display, did not elevate the tone of Trump’s speech.
Trump withdrew us from the Iran nuclear deal, he explained, because “it’s a radical regime. They do bad, bad things.” USA! USA!
There were several moments when members of both parties seemed unsure how to react. When Trump promised to go after the drug companies and lower prescription drug prices, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sat on his hands looking angry, and many other Republicans hesitated to clap.
As expected, Trump doubled down on his warnings of a “crisis” on the border, painting undocumented immigrants as dangerous criminals terrorizing U.S. cities by committing violent crimes.
He showcased family members of victims of a violent crime allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant, fueling the dangerous and counterfactual idea that undocumented workers, who prop up U.S. industries, including Trump’s own hotels, are more likely to commit rapes and murders than U.S. citizens.
Trump pivoted from his poisonous screed on immigrants to unselfconsciously display Holocaust survivors who sought refuge in the United States after World War II. As if their stories had nothing in common with the Syrian and Central American refugees his administration has treated so callously.
Like his attack on socialism, Trump’s purpose in feeding paranoid, racist fantasies about immigrants was clear: He does not seek to “unify” Americans but to divide us.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” he declared.
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In other words, Trump calculates that stoking fear of immigrants is a good political wedge. Like his conversion from Planned Parenthood supporter to champion of babies-ripped-from-wombs, his stand on the border wall, and his willingness to throw federal employees out of work during a pointless shutdown and create chaos and panic on the border, is pure political stunt.
For all his ominous words about domestic socialism, Trump, more than any of the young Medicare-for-all, free-college advocates in Congress, holds himself out as a class warrior.
Directing working-class anger downward, scapegoating other working people instead of challenging grotesque wealth for the few, is a hallmark of rightwing populism.
“Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards,” he declared. Meanwhile, “working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration--reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools, hospitals so crowded you can’t get in, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.”
Directing working-class anger downward, scapegoating other working people instead of challenging the structural inequalities that create scarcity for many and grotesque wealth for the few, is a hallmark of rightwing populism.
That strategy got Trump elected, and it’s one he is clearly depending on to keep him afloat.
But Trump’s fears of proliferating investigations and his sense that he is on the ropes, and that an increasingly active and organized female, black and brown, outspokenly progressive—and yes, socialist—movement is rising up against him is clearly making him worry that the joke is on him.
“USA! USA!” chants can drown out the majority only for so long.
As Stacey Abrams put it in her smart, cogent, and energetic Democratic response to the State of the Union:
Stacey Abrams delivered the Democratic response.
“In Georgia and around the country, people are striving for a middle class where a salary truly equals economic security. But instead, families’ hopes are being crushed by Republican leadership that ignores real life or just doesn’t understand it.”
Abrams is a breath of fresh air in a Democratic Party that seems to be suddenly waking up to the reality that an African American woman who ran a bold campaign in the South is the face of the future. Timid, centrist white male leadership is certainly not going to overcome the dangerously unhinged rightwing populist in the White House.
Abrams fought a rigged system, losing the governor’s race in Georgia after Republicans aggressively repressed African American votes. But she is back with an energized voting rights campaign. Democratic party leaders in Washington, who want her to run for the Senate, are counting on her to help lead them out of the wilderness.
“The foundation of our moral leadership around the globe is free and fair elections, where voters pick their leaders, not where politicians pick their voters,” Abrams declared in her speech.
Moral leadership is something we sorely need right now. Bring it on!