On Tuesday night, Donald Trump trudged his way through the State of the Union, an ode to American greatness that the president delivered with the halting, half-bored delivery of an assistant vice principal doing morning announcements at a suburban high school. The annual address is overhyped and forgettable at the best of times, and Trump's oratorical skills don't lend themselves to the occasion. He doesn't do so well when he has to create great sweeping portraits of national uplift; he's more of a finger-painter who smudges together crude emotions like resentment, nostalgia, and fear. This is a guy who opened his presidency by invoking "American carnage" and whose rally repertoire includes a parody of being "presidential" and a recitation of a song about a woman being killed by a snake.
So it wasn't surprising that a speech hyped as keying on bipartisanship was instead mostly just another airing of grievances on Trump's part—another chance to complain about Democrats and praise his own right-wing agenda. The most colorful parts described in lurid detail the supposed horrors of illegal immigration and late-term abortion, both highly charged issues Trump's diminishing base and the rest of America do not tend to agree about. Infrastructure—which once upon a time was supposed to be his big bipartisan innovation, a chance to break from GOP orthodoxy—was barely mentioned. This makes sense when you consider how Trump spent the first two years of his presidency ignoring campaign promises to rebuild America's roads and bridges.
At one point, he claimed that the many investigations into his administration might harm the economy. Later, in what was apparently an ad lib, he claimed he wanted legal immigrants to come "in the largest numbers ever," an obvious falsehood given his administration's work to restrict the ability of people to come to the US legally. That wasn't even his only baldfaced lie of the evening—he also made noise about protecting Americans with preexisting health conditions when his party is actively trying to do away with those protections.
There were certainly things in his speech everyone, even left-wing Democrats, could get behind, at least in theory. In what could be interpreted as a rare moment of grace, he praised the record number of women in Congress—even though most of them are Democrats, and some of them probably won because of his presence in the White House. The administration's plan to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, unveiled before the State of the Union, could make a positive difference in some people' lives. His pledges to wipe out HIV by 2030 and include funding for more cancer research and family leave in his budget request also probably sounded pretty good to lots of people across the political spectrum.
But just as it's hard to buy Trump's talk of "unity" after he dragged the government through an ultimately pointless shutdown, there are reasons to distrust even those least objectionable of policy goals when they come out of this president's mouth. He's only asking for $500 million in cancer research funding over ten years—a relative drop in the ocean of a federal budget—and his praise for family leave hasn't included embracing actual legislation on the table for years but blocked by Republicans. And if Trump is committed to his anti-HIV crusade, why did his administration propose making drastic cuts to programs that fight the virus worldwide? (That proposal, like the rest of Trump's budget, ultimately went nowhere—which underscores the impotence of presidential budget requests in the first place.)
The State of the Union is one of those events that is important because everyone believes it's important—the speech is blasted out across the media, news outlets run fact-checks of it in real time, the inboxes of journalists are flooded by interest groups of every stripe issuing responses and rebuttals. But then the news cycle spins on and you're left with a president who hours before his big speech on bipartisanship reportedly spent a lunch snarking to TV anchors about how Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was a “nasty son of a bitch” and former Vice President Joe Biden was "dumb."
The problem with the speech wasn't that it was dull or full of untruths or delivered badly, though it was all of those things. It wasn't better or worse than any of Trump's public speeches, which are normally Frankensteins of various right-wing policies combined with whatever he happened to see on TV that day. The problem is the expectation hovering over the whole event that this was supposed to be taken seriously. Trump's incompetent, lurching, scandal-ridden administration wasn't able to get a unified Republican government to agree on how to repeal Obamacare in 2017—how is anyone supposed to believe that he's going to be able to follow through on anything he outlined Tuesday night?
Maybe there is one way that Trump united the country during his speech: No one from either party, least of all the president himself, likely believed a word of it. And by next week we'll have forgotten the episode entirely.
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