Critic's Notebook: Trump Delivers Lengthy, Jingoistic State of the Union Address to Divided Nation
Speaking to cheering Republicans and glaring Democrats, the president introduced so many special guests it felt like he was pitching a new reality show.
During his election campaign Donald Trump promised that under the right circumstances he could sound totally presidential. So presidential, in fact, that we'd be bored. He lived up to that promise Tuesday night during his first State of the Union address, which went on so long, to such narcotizing effect, that it made you eagerly look forward to finding out what he really thinks when he tweets about it the following morning. He must be laying off the Sudafed, because he managed to get through it without slurring any words.
Speaking in mostly calm, measured tones, Trump delivered a relatively standard SOTU speech featuring boasts about his accomplishments in his first year and promising the moon going forward. He rhapsodized that "a new tide of optimism is sweeping across our land," which is definitely true of Democrats excited about their chances in the midterm election. "We have endured fires and floods and storms," he commented, which actually sounded pretty good compared to the worst year of a presidency ever. He said that we should "set aside our differences" as the camera cut to a grim-looking Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer who apparently don't agree.
Trump described, in endless detail, the economic boom that he claims has taken place since he took office. That's certainly true if you were already rich or heavily invested in the stock market. Attempting to persuade the American people that he was good for their pocketbooks, he provided so many specifics about increased wages, lower taxes and new jobs that it made you wonder why he doesn't just write everyone a personal check and eliminate the middle man.
Trump attempted to be a unifier this night, describing the nation as "one American family" and proclaiming to every citizen, "This is your time!" It seemed a bit rich coming from a president who has shown zero interest in appealing to anyone but his base. He dutifully pandered to evangelicals, thundering, "The motto is 'In God We Trust.'" (Sitting behind him, Paul Ryan helpfully pointed his arm upward as a visual aid.) Trump also asked Congress to remove federal employees who are failing the American people, and it was obvious that he was talking about Robert Mueller.
Among his many promises was that drug prices would get lowered, which is good news for the millions of Americans who've been gobbling down anti-anxiety medications since he was elected. He proposed a $1.5 trillion federally funded infrastructure plan, which seemed unrealistic until you realized that Republicans don't seem to care about deficits anymore. He also advocated paid family leave and prison reform, briefly pivoting so hard to the left that even the Democrats in the room seemed confused about how to respond.
Trump urged a "bipartisan approach" to immigration reform, which might work if he were able to stick to a position for more than two hours. He then trotted out the "four pillars" of his proposal as Democrats began fantasizing about which one of them could play Samson. He bizarrely advocated ending chain migration as a way to "protect the nuclear family," and proposed a path to citizenship for immigrants who demonstrated "good moral character." Because there's no better judge of good moral character than Trump.
The brilliant stroke in his segment on immigration was the line, "Americans are dreamers, too!" It's a loathsome sentiment considering the context, but you have to admit, pretty damn clever. Whoever wrote it shouldn't be working at the White House but rather on Madison Avenue.
Trump proposed modernizing and upgrading our nuclear arsenal, dutifully adding the caveat, "Hopefully, never having to use it." But you could tell he's just itching to push the button the next time Kim Jong-un insults him on Twitter. He also announced that he was ordering that Guantanamo Bay stay open, which isn't surprising considering how much he loves waterfront property. Describing his military strategy, he boasted, "We no longer tell our enemies of our plans," which is the same technique he applies to his press briefings.
It's standard for presidents to trot out special guests during their speech but Trump pushed it to the limit, as if he were pitching a new reality show. He introduced figures including a firefighter, a police officer who adopted a heroin addict's baby, a female Coast Guardsman, the Republican congressman who got shot, small business owners, a welder and a 12-year-old boy who started a program to place flags on veterans' graves. But he seemed most enthusiastic about introducing the families of people killed by immigrant gang members. As they sobbingly rose to acknowledge the heartfelt applause in the room, you couldn't help but feel they were being horribly exploited.
To describe the speech as jingoistic is an understatement. At one point the crowd even broke out into the chant "USA!" USA! USA!" It's a wonder they didn't start doing The Wave.
There were plenty of people cheering the president, but his wife was not among them. Other than when her guests were being introduced, Melania mostly sat stone-faced throughout the proceedings. She didn't even travel to the event with Trump, but rather went earlier by herself. It made you wonder which would end first, Trump's presidency or his marriage.