Three years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, then a failing Republican candidate in the Senate race in Illinois, warned Americans about the potentially fatal consequences of their internal schism over slavery. Borrowing from the Gospel of Matthew, Lincoln issued a caution that has reverberated throughout history and is acutely relevant today: “A house divided against itself will not stand.”
Donald Trump’s third State of the Union Address on Tuesday night showed the world that the U.S. is indeed a “house divided against itself”. Trump - who, in his infinite vanity, fancies himself a latter day Lincoln - delivered a divisive and inciting speech full of self-adulation and praise which, in light of the approaching election, was mainly geared to trashing his Democratic rivals and igniting his Republican base.
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Trump’s speech, however, won’t be remembered for his listing of achievements, some real but mostly imagined. The speech will be remembered for its stark break with tradition, protocol and etiquette: Trump refusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s outstretched hand at the beginning of his speech and, more so, her theatrical but deeply symbolic retaliation, in which the top-ranking Democrat defiantly tore up the written transcript of the president’s speech at its end.
On one side of the U.S. Capitol’s South Wing, in which the House of Representatives convenes, the Republican contingent repeatedly got up on their feet to root for a U.S. president delivering the most partisan State of the Union Address in history, garnishing with cheers of “Four More Years!” hitherto reserved for internal party meetings.
Trump consistently maligned his predecessors with allegations that were only loosely linked to facts and reality. He boasted of his stellar achievements, some of which, such as the state of the economy and unemployment, he is right to extol, but others, as in immigration, health insurance and foreign policy, are mainly a figment of his untethered imagination.
On the other side sat Democratic Representatives and Senators with a collective look of pain and anguish on their faces. They were smarting from the Democratic Party’s abysmal failure in counting the votes and publishing the results of Monday’s Iowa caucuses - which is still ongoing - frustrated with their party’s unforced error and the precious gift it delivered to their despised rival Trump.
They gazed with agony at the ecstasy of their Republican rivals enthusiastically cheering a president the Democrats regard as a tad short of devil incarnate, a clear, present and existential danger for the future of the United States. It was all too much to bear for a handful of Democratic lawmakers, who left the hall in protest and disgust.
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The stark delineation between the two political blocs, joyous on one side and ashen on the other, provided Americans with a harsh and depressing portrait of the deep fissures between the two parties, which start at the top but encompass the voting masses as well. Trump didn’t invent or create the so-called “Culture Wars” which have pit Americans one against the other for decades, but his tenure has exacerbated mutual enmity, escalated political and ideological confrontations broached irreconcilable differences and could very well lead to an actual meltdown of American’s body politic.
On one side of the divide stands a white and conservative U.S. which views Trump, despite and often because his notorious shortcomings, as a rough and tumble hero who is protecting America and its values from the leftist-liberal hordes that seek to undermine them. On the other stands a multi-colored and multi-ethnic America, chock full of minorities, which views Trump as a dangerous populist and dictator in the making who seeks to revert the U.S. to the bad old days when white supremacy reigned supreme and minorities were tolerated, at best.
Trump and his advisers deserve full credit for their pick of worthy guests, many of them African Americans, who enjoyed the traditional presidential salutes from the podium but injected hitherto unknown elements of the TV reality genre that Trump adores. The Democrats, needless to say, fumed at Trump’s efforts to portray himself as a benefactor of the black community, contrary to his deeds and mainly his habitually derogatory words.
The radical wing of the party, including Muslim lawmakers Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, played into Trump’s hands by refusing to join in the standing ovation for Charles McGee, one of the last remaining Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American pilots who fought in World War II.
Trump then tormented Democrats further by interrupting his speech so that his wife Melania could pin the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the shoulders of radio shock-jock Rush Limbaugh. The Democrats mostly restrained themselves, in light of Limbaugh’s earlier announcement that he was suffering from advanced lung cancer, but they nonetheless viewed the award of the prestigious presidential medal on a man viewed as a prominent purveyor of hate, division and crackpot conspiracy theories both as cynical provocation and sacrilege.
The Republicans’ unbridled enthusiasm highlighted Trump’s total takeover of the GOP, expected to be on full display in the president’s Wednesday acquittal in his impeachment trial before the Senate. With all 53 Republican Senators expected to vote in favor of acquittal, the Democrats last hope for Republican renegades who follow their conscience was extinguished. The age of heroes, it seems, is long gone: Democrats won’t see a reprisal of GOP Senator Howard Baker’s repudiation of party discipline during the 1973 Watergate hearings, in which he announced his conviction that Richard Nixon was guilty as charged.
The concurrence of their Iowa debacle, Trump’s acquittal and the zealous backing from his Republican faction crystallized the uphill battle Democrats face in their effort to unseat Trump in the November election. Their delusions that Trump is a weak and controversial candidate who will be a pushover were shattered.
The results of the Iowa caucuses, though not final, point to a scenario in which Democrats have no choice but to rally round problematic niche candidates such as Bernie Sanders, who stands far to the left of the American consensus, or Pete Buttigieg, the novice mayor from virtually unknown South Bend, Indiana. Trump, they fear, could make mincemeat of both.
A Trump victory in November means four more years with a divisive president who stokes fear and loathing as a political strategy and for his own personal enjoyment. The speech and its aftermath should raise global concern for the future wellbeing of the United States, as the world knows it. The house that Lincoln feared for is already divided against itself, its foundations crumbling under the weight of mutual hostility and fear. Four more years of Trump and it could very well complete its collapse.