Donald Trump’s State of the Union drenched his audience in insipid invocations of unity. Laboriously reading from a teleprompter, for 90 minutes he celebrated family, faith, law and order, the military, our veterans, the national anthem, “one team, one people, one American family.”
He then purposefully preyed on our fears, plying the race-bait politics that he and his party have perfected. He offered up not a policy speech for the country but a campaign message for his party.
This is Trump's trademark: the combination of patriotic banality with toxic cunning. Here are four major takeaways from the speech.
Drugs and gangs” ..”pour into our most vulnerable communities.”
Trump made immigration a centerpiece, calling on Congress to pass his four point “bipartisan compromise,” the only real policy proposal elaborated in his address.
But Trump isn’t looking for a deal on immigration, he’s intent on preying on racial divisions. He prefaced his proposal with a chilling invention of a mythical violent crime wave committed because “deadly loopholes allow MS-13 and other criminals to break into our country.” He cynically exploited the horrible murder of two young girls and burlesqued our current immigration policies to make his case.
This vicious politics of division is how he was elected, and it is how he will continue to campaign. That it rouses and empowers the opponents of decency for the Dreamers or any sensible reform of our immigration policies is a feature not a bug. He set the stage for a bitter debate on the Dreamers and immigration that will rouse his base going into 2018 elections.
“Our new American moment”
One year in office and Trump is already declaring “morning in America,” celebrating the record stock market, new jobs, rising wages and record low unemployment, particularly for African Americans. This from a president who has not yet passed a budget, whose much ballyhooed tax cuts haven’t kicked in yet, and who has made little progress in changing America’s trade policies.
He is, as the wags say, like the crowing rooster who takes credit for the dawn. In reality, jobs and wages grew more slowly in Trump’s first year than in Obama’s last. The trade deficit with China grew worse. The benefits of the tax bill go overwhelmingly to the already wealthy. The costs will be paid overwhelmingly by cuts in services to working and poor Americans. When it finally kicks in, it will give corporations more incentive to move jobs or report profits abroad. In the end, it will only add to the extreme inequality that undermines both our economy and our democracy.
Presidents take and are given credit for what happens on their watch, so Republicans will claim success if the stock bubble doesn’t pop and the economy sustains its momentum.
"The era of economic surrender is over”
Trump recycled his populist economic rhetoric in the speech, touting the end of unfair trade deals. He revived his liberal gestures, calling for cracking down on prescription drug prices, investing in infrastructure, workforce development and job training, supporting paid family leave, building “great vocational schools, reforming prisons, insuring treatment for opioid addicts.
Trump has offered no policies or legislation to back up this liberal wish list. These are empty words, not programs. Even on infrastructure investment, the administration has been unwilling to detail its priorities and plans. The litany serves only to distract from the central reality of Trump’s first year -- the rapid abandonment of his populist campaign postures, as he turned his foreign policy over to the military and his domestic policy to the Republican leaders in the Congress.
Unmentionable is the extent to which the administration has made the government, as Trump stated in Davos, “open for business.” Tax cuts for the wealthy and the rollback of Obamacare took priority in the first year. Deregulation features rollback of protections for workers, consumers and civil rights and the environment. Government accountability translates into open season for corporate lobbies and entrenched interests. His judicial appointments are packing the courts with pro-corporate judges.
Trump’s executive orders stripped millions of workers of the right to overtime pay, empowered employers to pocket the tips of tipped workers, and gave financial advisors a free pass to cheat the workers in their retirement accounts. The betrayal of the “forgotten working people” that he constantly invokes is shameless and complete.
“Our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines”
On national security policy, Trump presented himself, as he always does, as tougher than Obama. He took credit for defeating ISIS, boasted about doubling down in Afghanistan, scorned the “terrible Iran nuclear deal,” promised to stop North Korea’s nuclear buildup occurring because of “failures of past administrations,” moved to expand, not close, use of Guantanamo prison, and revive sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela.
Many commented on Trump’s failure to mention the Russian interference in our elections and those of our allies. There was no sign of Trump’s campaign skepticism about “stupid wars.” The threat posed by catastrophic climate change is consigned to the memory hole.
Strikingly, Trump mentioned China and Russia only in passing. Yet in its recent strategy documents, his administration has declared that the growing confrontation with China and Russia poses a greater threat than terrorism.
As Secretary Mattis put it in presenting the National Defense Strategy, “[W]e will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.” [emphasis added]. China and Russia are tagged as “revisionist powers” posing the “central challenge to US prosperity and security.”
In response, Trump’s National Defense Strategy calls for a military force that is dominant across the full “spectrum of conflict” – from Special Forces to nuclear weapons, and across the full range of “theaters” – from cyberspace to outer space, from the Russian border to the South China Sea. This, of course, is a charter for massive expansion of military spending.
In his speech, Trump called for “fully funding the military” and for rebuilding our nuclear arsenal, but did not bother to inform Americans that a new Cold War against both China and Russia is now the primary focus of the Pentagon, not the war on terror.
Perhaps the president retains his desire for better relations with Russia. Perhaps he is ignorant of the stated change in security priorities. Perhaps he thought it would distract from his posturing on MS-15 at home and terrorists and North Korea abroad. It is, however, truly bizarre that one of the more ominous developments in Trump’s first year in office went without mention.