November 21, 2019
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A call for unity is welcome. But the messenger matters.

Carolyn Kaster | AP
Carolyn Kaster | AP
President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday.

The State of the Union? Well, it’s a long story.

President Donald Trump’s speech Tuesday night, which clocked in at 82 minutes and was the third longest State of the Union address of all time, was of course met with very different reactions depending on political leanings.

For many of his fellow Republicans, it was a bold outline for America. For many Democrats, it was a hypocritical string of misrepresentations.

The gulf between those two reactions is enough to wonder if people were watching the same speech — or if Americans are living in concurrent, but alternate realities based on their ideologies and sources of information.

[What Maine’s congressional delegation thought of Trump’s speech]

The president and his aids have a fondness for the phrase “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” using it on Twitter to describe those who strongly oppose anything he does, regardless of the substance of that action. Tuesday night emphasized that our entire country — both the left and the right — may be suffering from some form of Trump derangement. It almost doesn’t matter what he says at this point: If you’re a Republican, you stand and cheer, and if you’re a Democrat, you shake your head and roll your eyes.

For all the appeals to unity, standing ovations, and slightly awkward “USA” chants in the House chamber Tuesday night, we remain in many ways a divided nation. The president’s assertion that “the state of our union is strong” was met by voracious applause from his party but a head shake from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It was a telling moment about the current American political landscape, where we have trouble keeping our government open and can’t agree on basic facts.

Trump’s speech, which almost didn’t happen and for weeks seemed likely to be a casualty of shutdown politics, was objectively well-written and provided an opportunity to stay on script and appear presidential — an opportunity he largely seized. Trump was able to get Democrats on their feet with appeals for action on potentially unifying issues such as lowering health care costs and drug prices, supporting U.S. workers, investing in infrastructure and providing paid leave.

It’s a common move for president’s to bring inspiring guests to the State of the Union, highlight their stories and elicit a wave of applause. But Tuesday night still managed some uplifting surprises. Take, for example, the chamber’s moving and impromptu birthday song for Holocaust and Pittsburgh synagogue shooting survivor Judah Samet.

The president even made a strong pitch to end “the politics of revenge,” imploring Congress and the country to “choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction.”

[Fact checking Trump’s claims in his State of Union address]

Considered in a vacuum, those statements are spot on. But given Trump’s own history of lashing out at political opponents, as he did to Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Twitter just hours before Tuesday’s polished push for unity, the president isn’t exactly an honest broker on that front.

Tuesday’s address can be broken down as two distinctly different speeches — one an overall message of unity delivered at the beginning and end of the evening, and a second more combative interlude in the middle, in which Trump attacked Democrats with a particular emphasis on border security, abortion and presidential nominations.

Adding to this seemingly disjointed approach is a report from the New York Times that the president spent time criticising Democrats and the late Sen. John McCain at a private lunch with TV anchors on Tuesday. The president doesn’t seems to have fully embraced his own message of unity.

With another deadline to fund the government quietly but rapidly approaching on Feb. 15, we hope Trump’s appeals to cooperation win out over his impulses to attack political opponents.

To borrow from his State of the Union address, it’s time we all chose progress over pointless destruction.

 



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