The great orator and master of Hollywood theatrics Ronald Reagan was the first to introduce the presidential gimmick of personally saluting American heroes during State of the Union addresses. But while Reagan initially chose to focus on only one profile in courage - Lenny Skutnik, who jumped into the Potomac in January 1982 to save victims of an Air Florida air crash - Donald Trump recognized more than a dozen during his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night. The ploy was successful: It illustrated an otherwise programmatic speech with inspiring and often poignant tales of personal heroism and of tragedy. The president had good reason to feel pleased with himself.
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The recognition of grassroots American heroes - and one North Korean defector - who were invited to attend the speech as guests of First Lady Melania Trump, compelled Democrats to momentarily abandon their collective sourpuss and to join Republicans in standing ovations. Nonetheless, and despite Trump’s repeated calls for bipartisan unity and collaboration, the speech and its setting highlighted the radical polarization that is currently splitting Congress and much of American public opinion. Republican enthusiasm removed any lingering doubts about their loyalty to Trump and to his agenda. There is a direct link, of course, between the GOP’s newfound appreciation for their president and the escalation of their efforts to obstruct the ongoing investigation of alleged collusion between Russia and his presidential campaign.
When they weren’t applauding brave Americans, Democrats did their best to show their disdain for the president. A few militant members of Congress boycotted the speech, African-American legislators registered their disapproval by wearing the traditional African kente cloth and the overwhelming majority made sure to maintain a constant expression of contempt, which even turned into unconventionally loud boos at several junctures. It was no coincidence that the Democrats chose the ginger firebrand Joe Kennedy, grandson of Robert, to deliver a combative Democratic response in which he warned Trump that in the end, “bullies” never win.
The address, one of the longest in recorded presidential history, reflected Trump’s tendency to periodically deliver reasonable speeches that garner faint praise even from his biggest detractors. The sense that he may have turned a corner usually dissipates within the short time that it takes Trump to get back to his Twitter feed and to tweet something outrageously insulting at one of his critics. Pundits are bound to ask once again whether Trump has finally decided to start acting “presidential” just as they are sure to be confounded when it turns out that he plans nothing of the sort, that his discordant and divisive song remains the same.
The flashpoint of the speech, from the point of view of American listeners, dealt with immigration. Trump threw a bone to the Democrats by offering so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as children by their illegal immigrant parents, a lengthy path to citizenship. This was his only declaration that Republicans preferred not to cheer loudly. At the same time, however, Trump chose to showcase the private tragedies of two teenagers who were allegedly murdered by members of the notorious Central American gang M-13 in order to tar all illegal immigrants. He used the same kind of smearing generalization on the first day of his presidential campaign, when he railed against the “rapists and murderers” that Mexico is supposedly sending across its northern border. It worked then, at least on his base, and there’s no reason to think it won’t work now.
As usual, fact-checkers pounced on Trump’s assertions and found countless inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Many of the laurels Trump claimed for himself were either unfounded or were the result of market forces and/or policies of his predecessor. But there’s no arguing with success: the American economy, for whatever reason, is broadcasting growth and health. It allows Trump to dismiss the naysayers and to ridicule the prophets of doom who predicted unmitigated disasters. The bottom line, which is the only thing that matters to tycoons like Trump, is showing a handsome profit. If Trump’s position in the polls is dismal nonetheless, in his eyes it is only a function of fake news and loser rivals who defame him for no good reason.
Although State of the Union addresses are usually reserved for domestic policies, Trump also devoted a chapter to foreign affairs. Contrary to what everyone else in the world is thinking, he claimed that America’s standing is actually improving. He mentioned his recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and introduced a law that would bar U.S. foreign aid to countries that are not friendly. Even though he didn’t mention them specifically, the context shows that Trump was warning leaders of the Palestinian Authority that if they didn’t stop demonstrators from burning his image in effigy in the streets of Ramallah and Bethlehem, they might soon have to start worrying about getting their paychecks at the end of the month.
The more important part of Trump’s foreign policy plank was dedicated to sending a much more ominous warning to North Korea. It included a salute to the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died in September after being released from a North Korean prison, as well as to Seong Ho, a North Korean defector who used the opportunity to wave the crutches on which he walked to freedom. Trump’s harsh words reminded some analysts of George Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address about the “axis of evil” which is seen today as a prelude to the ill-fated Iraq war. If the analogy is valid, the North Korean pendulum seems to be swinging away from a diplomatic settlement and back to the specter of a war that no American general really knows how to win.
Russia, on the other hand, emerged virtually unscathed from the speech, with Trump making do with describing it as an almost benign “rival.” The backdrop to this glaring omission is Trump’s decision, announced by the White House this week, to defy the law passed in July by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress and to refrain from imposing new sanctions on Russia. The decision was viewed by critics as further corroboration of suspicions that Trump is a Russia stooge, at best, if not a kept agent, at worst. Trump naturally refrained from mentioning the special investigation being carried out by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, which is attracting increasing GOP opposition. He knows that more than any policy he presented to Congress on Tuesday night, the unmentionable probe will determine the fate of his presidency and the reception he will receive at his next State of the Union, if he’ll still be around to deliver it.