By avoiding outright catastrophe, Trump’s first SOTU was most notable for its sinister vision of American government
When dealing with a President as uniquely prone to self-inflicted injury as Donald Trump, expectations are inevitably lowered. Historically, the State of the Union is a preview for the President’s upcoming legislative agenda—think Obama’s Affordable Care Act or Bush’s education reform. In more dire times, it can be an attempt to reset a troubled narrative, like when Richard Nixon told the public “one year of Watergate was enough” during his final STOU. Ahead of Trump’s first State of the Union, the widely-held expectation was that Trump must remain upright and make it through the allotted time without insulting an entire race of people or initiating a military strike against one of his rivals for the night to be a success.
By those measures, Trump succeeded. Trump’s nearly 90 minute address—the third longest in history—was on-script and linguistically coherent. He laid out his legislative victories. He outlined some policy goals for the upcoming year. He pointed to regular Americans in the crowd and most of the assembled lawmakers clapped for their heroics and bravery. His jokes mostly landed.
For an administration in perpetual crisis, the address was jarring in how competent it was. But this polish belied a sinister ideology. Last night was the most coherent expression of what a Trump conservative believes. And that ideology is based in xenophobia, economic injustice, and brinksmanship warmongering. Many of us already knew this, but seeing it so plainly laid out was striking.
Trump is proud of the American economy. The low unemployment, the record stock-market, and the sweeping tax reform bill. To him, this apparent economic surge represents a new “American moment,” a new era of deregulation and corporate tax cuts. The problem is that these gains are mostly reserved for a very specific subset of Americans, and it has become increasingly apparent this was by design.
While the stock market and unemployment rates have improved—the latter significantly and the former incrementally, other measures of equitable economic success have either stagnated or outright decreased. Wage growth is holding steady, the job market is expanding slower than it did a year ago, and Trump’s signature tax bill is widely expected to increase income inequality and predominantly benefit the wealthy. And while Trump can point to the millions of dollars given in bonuses to employees by large companies following the tax bill’s passage, it isn’t stopping those same companies from laying off workers.
By ignoring the middle and lower class, and continuing to rely on an antiquated theories for growing the economy, Trump is making his economic vision very clear: a focus on making America’s elite more wealthy, with any gains to the lower class coming as a side-effect of these policies. It’s impossible to separate this goal from welfare and entitlement reforms that loom on the horizon, which will inevitably make poor Americans less able to receive government aid. When you factor that in, the Trumpian economic vision shifts from a lessened focus on the lower class, to outright neglect.
Trump’s address came barely a week after the first government shutdown since 2013. The primary cause of the shutdown—what to do with the over 800,000 DACA recipients—is still unresolved. With little over a month until protections for the “Dreamers” run out, Trump’s biggest mention of them was a sideswiping dig: “Americans are dreamers too.” His priorities felt clear.
As he has before, Trump chose to cast immigration as a crime control, spending most of the section talking about the gang MS-13. This is odd for a number of reasons, chief among them that MS-13 is a relatively small issue. At its height, the gang had a membership of around 10,000, according to The Atlantic, which is a small fraction of America’s estimated total gang membership of 1.3 million.
Trump’s xenophobia toward immigrants from Mexico and South America has been long-documented, but in this ultimate position of power, his agenda is clear: talk disproportionately about the crime committed by undocumented immigrants, and allow immigrant communities in need to wilt away in silence. A newly resurgent ICE has brought a surge of arrests and detentions. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants will suddenly find themselves without options if a proposed scale back of Temporary Protected Status goes through. Even if the Dreamers see a pathway to citizenship, his proposed immigration deal that would come along is the most conservative immigration policy in decades. All the while, he will stand on a stage and talk about crime and hope it becomes seen as justifiable.
There are other takeaways. His brinksmanship with North Korea remains unsustainable; last night saw the first North Korean defector honored at a State of the Union. His rhetoric on trade seems destined to create a trade war. His proposal to lower prescription drug prices is undeniably a positive for the American people, but it’s a rehashed campaign promise that went completely unaddressed in his first year. Everyday, more Americans die in an opioid crisis that Trump declared a public health emergency but did little to actually combat.
The vision of American government that Trump laid out last night is one defined by neglect. Neglect of the working class in favor of the wealthy’s ever-increasing grasp on capital. Neglect of hundreds of thousands of Americans who don’t know whether they will be allowed to stay in the country. Neglect of campaign promises, neglect of a coherent diplomacy beyond threats of annihilation.
By avoiding the outright disaster that came with countless days in the seemingly unending first year of his Presidency, Trump gave us a clear-eyed vision of how he believes the American government should prioritize domestically and internationally. His vision is appalling.