President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway previewed the State of the Union address as a “call for more comity.”
Perhaps she meant “comedy”?
The notion that this president, who governs by insult, leads by division and delights in inflaming grievances, would be associated with comity is, well, funny.
Each year, around Groundhog Day, Trump emerges to give a one-night bipartisan appeal, and Tuesday night’s rendition was, by Trumpian standards, generous. But then he spends the next 12 months throwing shadow.
“Together we can break decades of political stalemate,” Trump inveighed Tuesday. “We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions.”
Sound familiar? This is what he said last year: “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people.”
And the year before: “I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength. … We must build bridges of cooperation and trust — not drive the wedge of disunity.”
On Tuesday night, Trump said: “The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people.”
Here’s his 2018 version: “We came together, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as representatives of the people.”
And his 2017 version: “Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite for the good of our country and for the good of the American people.”
Some repetition of themes is inevitable in such addresses. But Americans understand, by now, that unity and comity are not in the president’s skill set, no matter what words his advisers loaded into the TelePrompter. He would be just as convincing if he used his address to announce that he will play first oboe this year in the National Symphony Orchestra.
Trump’s choice of guests for the speech offered some hope of unity: people who had overcome drug addiction or childhood cancer, or survived the Pittsburgh massacre. But here, too, were symbolic provocations: relatives of people killed by an illegal immigrant, even though Trump’s favorite scapegoats don’t commit crimes in greater proportion than others.
Some of Trump’s words, likewise, were unifying, such as his call to eliminate HIV in 10 years (a proposal that would be more convincing if Trump hadn’t proposed cutting AIDS funding). But it was difficult to escape the conclusion that Trump is just reading the words he was given because he’s supposed to.
Last night? “Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure.”
Last year? “It is also time to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. … I am asking both parties to come together.”
The year before? “Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced.”
Last night? “I am also proud to be the first president to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave.”
Two years ago? “My administration wants to work with members of both parties to make child care accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents that they have paid family leave.”
Trump delivered the usual bromides about cooperation: “Victory is winning for our country.” “Now is the time for bipartisan action.” “We must reject the politics of revenge.” “We must go forward together.”
The warmest moment came when Trump celebrated “more women serving in the Congress than ever before.” There were chants of “USA!” and high-fives among Democratic women wearing suffragette white. More good feelings came with a cross-aisle round of “Happy Birthday” for a Holocaust survivor.
Trump was at times lofty — “this is the time to reignite the American imagination” — and, for him, unusually positive — presidential, even. But this is Trump, and nobody should expect the bonhomie to last.
There were groans when Trump alleged that “caravans are on the march to the United States,” and more groans when he called it a “tremendous onslaught.” He renewed his call for a border wall — “I’ll get it built” — and revived campaign lines about “open borders,” MS-13, murderous illegal immigrants and creeping socialism.
But something unexpected happened when Trump blamed his opponents for the current ugliness. Denouncing both “foolish wars” and “ridiculous partisan investigations,” he said, mockingly: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Nobody — not even the Republicans — cheered.
Trump might think people believe his annual appeal for unity. But everybody is onto the joke.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @Milbank.