President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech is being widely described as an effort to move past the chaos, anger, polarization and divisiveness that have been unleashed by his first year in office. The speech tried to “move past tumult,” proclaimed the front page of the New York Times. It was an “appeal to unity,” said the Times’s lead news story.
But this isn’t what Trump tried to do at all. Instead, Trump doubled down on pretty much every aspect of his presidency that large majorities of Americans have found so searingly polarizing and divisive. The real core of the speech was his effort to rhetorically recast the key elements of that approach as unifying and conciliatory without moving past them at all.
Trump’s “economic nationalist” campaign agenda packaged the promise of a genuine break with conventional plutocratic GOP economic orthodoxy with a series of racial and xenophobic appeals that were more explicit than such GOP appeals usually are. But during his first year in office, Trump fully betrayed the economic side of that proffered bargain. He embraced that conventional GOP plutocracy on most matters, while translating the racial and xenophobic appeals into policy wherever possible, and in some cases venturing even further into naked white-identity politics than during the campaign.
And so, Trump’s speech had two major goals: First, to persuade working- and middle-class Americans that those economic policies are good for them. Second, to reiterate his commitment to the most polarizing aspects of his approach in the eyes of the base voters who thrill to it while making conciliatory noises directed at the college-educated and suburban white swing voters who have been badly alienated by it - and who, as a result, may deliver control of at least one chamber of Congress to Democrats this year, hamstringing his presidency.
Both of these imperatives required large-scale deceptions on Trump’s part.
The first required Trump to make a deeply misleading case that the economy is doing far better now than when he took office. Trump hailed the jobs created on his watch, the companies that credited his tax plan with new jobs, the soaring stock market. But as Michael Grunwald on Politico shows, Trump cherry-picked good company announcements while conveniently forgetting about the ones that went bad (Carrier, anyone?); misrepresented who actually benefits from his tax cuts; and unleashed a whole string of distortions rooted in a refusal to acknowledge the actual state of the economy he inherited.
Even Trump’s efforts to tout his economic record as a boon to minorities, to show that the race mongers are falsely depicting his presidency as polarizing, accomplished the opposite goal. Trump boasted that the unemployment rate among African Americans is at a record low, but taking credit for this required airbrushing away its huge drop under Barack Obama, thus furthering his racially divisive narrative that his predecessor was a full-blown disaster for them. Similarly, when Trump talked about the American flag as a unifying symbol, he immediately undercut it by reminding us of his polarizing attacks on African American football players who protest racism.
On the second goal: Trump didn’t back off his immigration agenda, or the toxic ideas and rhetoric undergirding it, in the slightest. He merely tried to repackage those things as conciliatory. Trump called for a deal protecting the “dreamers” that would, he said, give concessions to both sides. But he reiterated his demand for large cuts to legal immigration, even as he rehashed his ugliest demagoguery about undocumented immigrants by blaming fictional open borders for crime, hyping the MS-13 threat, and dissembling reprehensibly about the diversity visa lottery program and “chain migration.”
Crucially, Trump cast his proposed immigration restrictions as a boon to immigrants who are legally here (pitting them against future immigrants) and said they are “compassionate” in that they would insulate American workers against foreign competition. But that, too, is based on a distorted narrative about immigrants putting downward pressure on U.S. wages. Trump’s deeper argument remains that immigration at anything close to current levels is basically a malevolent and destructive force. In fact, the opposite is true.
Trump’s twin goals — pitching his economic policies as good for ordinary Americans while putting a unifying gloss on a deeply polarizing presidency — met in his call for bipartisan agreement on more spending on infrastructure, on job training and paid family leave. It was good to hear Trump articulate those goals. But everything we know about his infrastructure plan suggests it will be a tax-break and cronyist privatization scheme. And if you think those other things will happen under a GOP Congress, I have a Trump Steak to sell you. As for his promise of new trade policies, we’ll see if they actually benefit U.S. workers.
The very half-baked nature of those promises only serves to further underscore that the economic side of Trumpism has turned out to be a scam — that there won’t be any serious policies for working people that comport with the break from GOP plutocracy that he promised. Meanwhile, the speech only confirmed that the racial polarization and xenophobia will continue. In short, Trump isn’t moving past his first year on either front at all, and Tuesday night, he basically told us so.