US: President Trump gives an astonishing impression of a real president in his first State of the Union speech

Unravelling the US president’s first real State of the Union speech, J BROOKS SPECTOR wonders at the miracle of democracy and the depths that can be reached simultaneously. And he rose at 04:00 to watch it live and then listen to commentary on it and read about it as other journalists began to take the measure of it.

The State of the Union speech by an American president is one of those secular but sacred rituals of American government and public life. It is specifically called for by the American Constitution, and since the administration of Woodrow Wilson back at the beginning of the 20th century, presidents have ceremonially gone to the Capitol Building to enter the chamber of the House of Representatives to deliver this address in person.

(Previous presidents had simply sent a written version to the Congress for their delectation.)

Now these speeches are broadcast by television networks, sent out by internet streaming, and almost simultaneously deconstructed by critics, analysts, supporters and miscellaneous ravers.

For those expecting the usual Donald Trump – ranting and roaring, flame-throwing against all enemies real and imaginary – it was a surprisingly calm event. Perhaps we were half expecting Trump – standing there at the dais in front of senators, representatives, supreme court justices, cabinet members, diplomats and invited guests – to foam at the mouth, rip his clothes off to show a scarlet T-shirt emblazoned with a giant yellow “T”, and then fly about the room and slay his opponents with his laser-vision, X-ray eyes.

Instead, we got a Donald Trump who – except when he was animated by excoriating a violent Central American youth gang that supposedly is a major component of immigrant flows (legal or illegal); by the barbaric, demonic North Korean regime and its barbaric, demonic ways; or by those perfidious foreign companies and countries that continue to suck jobs out of the hands of hard-pressed, hard-done-by, hard-working Americans – seemed almost subdued.


Perhaps someone had put some kind of mood altering substance in his food, or perhaps he was dreaming of one of those Mickey-D double cheeseburgers he could dine on in his king-sized bed while watching Tivo’d bits of Fox and Friends. Regardless, he was trying to be, well, presidential. It was sometimes a struggle. Our personal favourite was the burbling on about the return of clean coal – giving rise to a private vision of a giant factory where hospital gown-clad workers with gloves and masks industriously scrubbed lumps of coal with surgical spirits….

Much of this address was an orgy of self-congratulation over the magical powers of the Trump administration in rebuilding America, phoenix-like, from its state of carnage that had been so vividly described in his inaugural address in 2017 – and instead on to a nation reborn and about to burst into song over its reboot. It was kind of like a Trumpian version of the Walt Whitman poem from the 19th century, I Hear America Singing – that was a praise poem to the vitality of America’s work ethic and energy.

Listen to Walt Whitman’s poem:

To listen to the president, by virtue of his presence (and goosed along by the benefits of the tax reform measures that have – realistically – not yet really reached many and, if you believe the Democratic critics and a majority of economists, will never do so in large measure), millions of new jobs have been conjured up, vast resources have been invested in the nation by corporations, and unemployment is reaching jaw-droppingly low levels.

Virtually ignored by the president, of course, is that this first year is largely a continuation of the economic recovery that came about during the previous president’s tenure in office, following the real carnage of the 2008 financial crisis. To listen to Trump, the impressive growth in the stock market is proof positive of his approach and a visible manifestation of Trumpian economic policies, notwithstanding the fact that only about half of the country’s people actually own any stock – directly or indirectly – through retirement savings plans and the fact that the majority of actual stock ownership is still in the hands of a small minority of the total population.

To be fair, the president made theatrically effective use of a number of invited “just folks” heroes – a firefighter, a North Korean defector, a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, a young person who started a movement to put flags on the graves of the military fallen, and two survivors of violent, fatal gang attacks against their families, where the gang members were illegal immigrants. Each of these live art-style guests were used to underscore specific points in the speech. This rhetorical flourish was begun by Ronald Reagan who had invited Lenny Skutnik, the ordinary civil servant who had swum into the frozen waters of the Potomac River to rescue survivors from the crash of an Air Florida jet that had hit a bridge and landed in the water.

Watch footage of this incident from 1982:

Ever since, presidents have found a way to do this as a way of making their points – but Trump may have won the trophy for the most invitees for one speech (although I can’t be sure since it was early in the morning, South Africa time).

As far as specifics go, there really were rather few. There were more vigorous threats directed at North Korea and Iran (although very little in the direction of Russia or even China), and at ISIS or its friends and clones. There were promises to focus on the opioid addiction crisis, to knock down drug prices, and to improve healthcare for veterans. There was a plea to unleash the military budget from the shackles of the defence spending sequester (the spending limits pushed by his own party during the latter part of the Obama administration to help restrain government spending overall). And there was a pitch for his long-promised infrastructure rebuilding programme – but now morphing into a kind of public-private partnership – but there was little in the way of real specifics or details therein. There was also a pledge to keep the terror suspect prison facility at the US naval base in Guantanamo on the island of Cuba open for future terrorist captives. This reverses the longer trend to wind down that prison programme progressively and is almost certain to provoke the ire of many human rights groups domestically and internationally.

And, of course, the jewel in the crown of this State of the Union speech by President Trump was his focus on immigration reform. In large measure, the speech effectively reprised the president’s earlier ideas that his version of immigration reform would offer up to 1.8-million paths to citizenship for “dreamer children” (residents who were brought into the US as children by illegal immigrant parents), substantial funding for the president’s pet programme – the wall along the Mexico-US border (although the promise that Mexico would pay for this seems to have sunk below the waves), as well as an end to the diversity visa lottery programme and the so-called chain migration programme.

The latter has been rather systematically misrepresented as a path into the US for vast hordes of extended family members, and the end of the lottery visa programme has been called by some as a programme to “make America white again” by opponents of this idea. Regardless, gaining agreement from Republican right-wing hardliners to this overall plan seems unlikely and many Democrats are opposed to it as well. The GOP opponents disagree with the dreamer provision and the Democrats dislike the other proposed provisions. At this rate, the immigration reform plan seems destined to be entangled with efforts to pass a government budget, as well as the upcoming mid-term election.

Immediately following the president’s State of the Union speech, television networks broadcast a Democratic response delivered by Congressman Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts. Yup, the latest scion of the Kennedy family. Kennedy pumped hard for a Democratic vision as a party of inclusion in contrast to the Trumpian divisiveness and of Democrats as a party that welcomed the nation’s diversity and its varied energies. While this speech, too, was short on specifics, it seemed rather tailor-made for snippets being dropped into electronic messages in support of any number of Democratic candidates in 2018 aiming to overturn – at the least – Republican control of the House of Representatives. It will be a contentious year, without doubt.

Watch Congressman Joe Kennedy’s response:

While this State of the Union speech was about to take place, the growling and snarling over the various aspects of the “Russian influence on the 2016 election investigation” (note to self: must find a better way to abbreviate this) were getting louder and more boisterous. The Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee have promised to release a partisan report that aims to discredit the FBI as a one-sided force, even as the intelligence community has not yet signed off on the report. In response, the Democrats on the committee are now threatening to release their own point-by-point rebuttal of the Republican report, highlighting its effort to distract from the special prosecutor’s ongoing investigation. That is the one being carried out by Robert Mueller, the same man supported overwhelmingly by the GOP when he was offered as the special prosecutor as well as when he was appointed to head the FBI some years earlier still. Lots of fun to come here, and then there was the problem with the timing of the GOP committee report announcement such that it tripped over the president’s intended focus on the State of the Union. Bad planning, there.

Finally, in the midst of all this, it has come out that the man who was about to be nominated as the Trump administration’s ambassador to Korea, Victor Cha, was un-nominated because he had privately disagreed with the ideas of surgical strikes or pre-emptive strikes or other forms of armed force to steer North Korea away from its nuclear ambitions. Cha had, instead, supported more efforts to obtain more pressure on Pyongyang from Russia and China and, if necessary, something that looked suspiciously like a naval quarantine around North Korea to preclude sanctions running. Once Cha was tossed overboard, he, in turn, went public with a column in Wednesday morning’s Washington Post, setting out his ideas. Don’t expect to see him any time soon in the Trump administration.

But the Cha imbroglio simply underscores that there is no easy way forward for the Trump administration to put an end to this troublesome little rocket-man’s nuclear and missile ambitions. As if to point out that the North Koreans have more flexibility than most think, over the past couple of weeks they had managed to reach an agreement with South Korea to participate in the soon-to-take-place winter Olympics in Pyeongchang with a women’s ice hockey as a joint team, as well as a delegation of officials, martial arts demonstration teams and even a group of those astonishing placard bearing cheerleaders to come south. While no one should see this as an immediate way forward for eternal peace on the Korean Peninsula, by the same token it seems that Kim Jong-un had managed to create a small crack in the alliance between the US and South Korea and to appeal to the deeply felt view among South Koreans that a resolution to the division should come through the efforts of the Koreans themselves.

In the near future, the US president’s budget message to Congress will actually spell out the details of many of the ideas mentioned. But don’t expect – in the manner of parliamentary democracies – that this budget will simply sail through Congress, even if Republicans control it. They will need the co-operation of Democrats, at least in the Senate. And all of it, every word of it, will be akin to trench warfare in a midterm election year in which public opinion (beyond Trump’s core supporters) and GOP goals are often in conflict, and where Democrats think they have a real chance to capitalise on this very point. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump delivers his first State of the Union from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, USA, 30 January 2018. At rear are US Vice President Mike Pence (L) and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS.