He couldn’t help himself.
The White House took pains to say President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address would be “unifying” and contain a “bipartisan” tone. Excerpts released before the speech repeated the word “together” three times.
But Trump was still in the first minute of his speech — 72 words from the start — when he belted out his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Republicans roared. It was the first of several cultural wedges Trump would drive through the chamber over the next hour — pitting immigrants against “Americans,” trumpeting his support for the Second Amendment but no other, and reviving racially charged disputes he ignited over the past year.
It was a campaign event — literally. Presidents since George Washington have fulfilled the constitutional obligation to report to Congress on the state of the union, but Trump was the first to turn the State of the Union into a telethon. His campaign offered to display supporters’ names on the Official Donald J. Trump for President livestream of the address — if they contributed $35 or more.
To be sure, the speech was not the rarest of red meat Trump has served. He stuck to his script, which followed the usual conventions of celebrating heroes in the gallery and praising the military and veterans. He gave a touching tribute to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, wounded in the congressional baseball shooting, then pivoted to “call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people … we were elected to serve.” And he closed with a nod to Freedom standing tall over the Capitol. (Republicans reacted to this with a baritone chant of “USA! USA!”)
In between, though, Trump offered every manner of barb, in a performance that stirred the very enmity he professed a wish to overcome. “We repealed the core of the disastrous Obamacare,” he boasted, generating glares from Democrats but perhaps the biggest roar of the night on the GOP side.
When he said “we proudly stand for the national anthem” — a reference to black NFL players who have protested by taking a knee — there was a lusty roar from the GOP side and wan looks from Democrats. Trump applauded the cheering Republicans.
He provoked Democratic groans by announcing that he is naming judges who “interpret the Constitution as written,” ignited another provocation by saying he “ended the war on beautiful clean coal,” and produced loud protest from the opposition party when he said immigrants pouring through “open borders” have “caused the loss of many innocent lives.”
Trump, after passing a tax cut that skewed wealth more toward the rich, reclaimed his populist campaign themes, invoking “the people” half a dozen times — and positioning them against immigrants.
I’ve been in the House chamber for many such addresses over the past couple of decades. There were highs (President George W. Bush’s speeches after the 9/11 attacks) and lows (South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s “you lie!” moment). This was the most depressing, for it displayed a hopelessly divided government and people — and a president deepening the rift.
Trump’s motorcade from the White House passed protest signs proclaiming “Not My President” and “Liar.” Many Democrats boycotted the speech, and those who were in the hall were bedecked in various symbols of protest: black garb, African sashes, red pins, butterfly stickers, or purple ribbons.
More disturbing was the willingness of Republicans in the chamber to cheer for Trump even when he voiced ideas they opposed. When Trump proclaimed that “the era of economic surrender is totally over” and said he was scrapping “unfair trade deals,” the previously free-trading Republicans applauded.
They applauded, as well, when Trump did his usual inconsistencies and rearranging of facts. Trump proclaimed that “we are now an exporter of energy to the world” (we were an exporter for years and are still not a net exporter), that “unemployment claims have hit a 45-year low” (Trump, before taking office, had said the unemployment figures he now cites were phony), and that “the stock market has smashed one record after another” (he alleged before taking office that the record-setting market was a “bubble” and “artificial”).
Republican lawmakers, clearly, have bound themselves tightly to Trump — and Trump, just as clearly, has no wish to heal the wounds he has caused. He ended his address just as he began. In the final minute, 73 words from the end, the campaign theme returned: “It is the people,” he said, “who are Making America Great Again.”
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is email@example.com.
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