President Donald Trump enjoyed rare moments of grace during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. The spontaneous cheer that erupted among female Democrats at Trump’s mention of their increased representation in the new Congress was ironic, given that many of them were elected because of resistance to Trump – but it was also uplifting. A slim ray of unified mirth and collective contentment had pierced through the perpetually dark clouds of polarization and acrimony, if only for a moment.
The same generous spirit, albeit devoid of irony, marked most of the representatives’ reactions to Trump’s Reaganite reliance on the emotional appeal of his guests in the balcony, and none more so than Holocaust and Pittsburgh-massacre survivor Judah Samet. Coming after roars of appreciation for Timothy Matson, the Pittsburgh Police SWAT member who was shot seven times in pursuit of the mass murderer who killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue, Samet’s story moved Congress to break out in surprising and spontaneous song of “Happy Birthday” to mark his 81st.
Trump’s next two guests, Dachau survivor Joshua Kaufman and Dachau liberator Herman Zeitchik, continued a segment that pulled at heartstrings, especially of American Jews – even those who may otherwise detest the president. For once, Trump didn’t make do with proclaiming his friendship to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel. Together with his forthright commemoration of the Holocaust and clear condemnation of anti-Semitism, Trump seemed to be catering, for once and if only from a teleprompter, to American-Jewish sensitivities as well.
Trump’s gestures provided old-new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with numerous opportunities to nod approvingly at Trump and even join in applause, underlining her demand of Democrats to refrain from provocations that would play into the president’s hand. Her very presence on the podium, however, marked a far more dramatic change than Trump’s out-of-character lauding of anyone other than himself.
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Pelosi made sure to flash the occasional smug smile at Congress and the TV cameras, lest anyone, especially Trump, forgets his still-fresh humiliation at her hands in the duel over the government shutdown and funding for his wall with Mexico.
The forced smiles and mutual exclusion zone between Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence on the podium, along with Pelosi’s frequent, subdued yet still noticeable expressions of dismay bordering on disgust at Trump’s less appealing junctures, were a more accurate reflection of the Mood of the Union than Trump’s fleeting moments of goodwill.
Trump did open his speech with a call for national unity and bipartisan collaboration, but immediately went off in the exact opposite direction. He devoted most of his speech to the heated controversy over illegal immigrants, maintaining his practice of cherry-picking individual cases of crime and violence – the more gruesome the better – in order to tar them as a whole. Republicans may have cheered Trump’s defiant insistence on funding for his wall, but they were groaning inside, fearing a second shutdown that would be no less harmful to the GOP brand than the original.
Trump preached an end to political stalemate, but his speech further entrenched it. He blasted revenge and retribution, but continued to tweet invectives at his political rivals moments before his speech and moments after. He inflamed Democratic listeners by blasting the “partisan investigation,” in which he happens to be the prime target, thus rendering his speech achingly familiar to Israelis otherwise engaged in their own election meshuganas.
Trump even provided his good friend Netanyahu with a handy token of appreciation for the flattering picture of both men that dominates the North Korean-sized posters Likud has put up on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway, as part of the prime minister’s election propaganda. Trump gave Netanyahu a ready-made slogan that somehow succeeded in sounding even more inane than Netanyahu’s staple “Nothing will happen because nothing did” response to the myriad criminal investigations against him.
“If there’s going to be peace and legislation there cannot be war and investigation,” Trump said with the self-satisfied smile of a lawyer who has just dropped the bombshell that wins his case. To drive his point home, Trump exclaimed “It just doesn’t work,” leaving cheering Republicans scratching their heads nonetheless in an effort to decipher what, exactly, he was talking about.
Trump also emulated Netanyahu by inflating random calls on the far left in support of socialism to a sinister plot against America that threatens its very existence. The roars of approval from many Republicans against a danger that, much like Trump’s depiction of hordes of illegal immigrants storming the southern border, is a figment of his imagination, showed that, like in Israel, distortion, incitement and divisiveness will do the trick every time.
Trump poured salt on fresh Democratic wounds by trashing Obamacare, and then added insult to injury by calling for a law that would prohibit late-term abortions, in what seemed like a blatant effort to repay evangelicals for their steadfast support. Trump devoted a much smaller portion of his speech to foreign affairs, but touched the familiar buttons of criticizing China, dissing NATO and negating the perception of the United States as policeman of the world in order to replace it with “America First.”
Trump repeated his assertion of momentous achievements with his North Korean BFF Kim Jong Un, revealing the date of another summit between the two leaders, to be held at the end of the month in Vietnam. Democrats and Republicans alike greeted the news with groans and anxiety, fearing a return engagement of last June’s fiasco summit in Singapore, which could turn into a regular series.
Trump didn’t skip his customary self-congratulations on abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but made no mention of his long-awaited peace plan, which is supposedly ready for presentation at a moment’s notice. Trump skipped promoting his “ultimate deal” or making any mention of the Palestinians, for that matter, because Netanyahu told him that doing so could induce right-wing Israeli voters to bolt for parties to Likud’s right.
Payday for Netanyahu, who has staked his reputation on his beautiful friendship with Trump, has been postponed either until he wins the April 9 election or loses it in a shocker to someone like Benny Gantz – or is indicted, sacked and put on trial, whichever comes first.