State of the Union: Trump's same old nationalism wrapped in new packaging

State of the Union: Trump's same old nationalism wrapped in new packaging
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Analysis on the State of the Union typically revolves around the expectations game. The day before the speech, we’re treated to the media, administration, and opposition pushing their stories about what to expect, fighting over how high (or low) the bar should be. In some ways, there is more to learn from comparing the actual speech to the expectations laid out by the varying constituencies.

Many on the left are eager to declare the speech an unmitigated disaster, while those on the right are largely inclined to declare it an unprecedented success. Both assessments are disingenuous.

In truth, last night’s speech was a somewhat run-of-the-mill address for a GOP president. What it lacked in aesthetic delivery, it made up for in patriotic references to the flag and a celebration of American heroes. In a seemingly new twist, it was long on talk of cooperation. Unfortunately, after one year, I think we’ve learned that the gap between the president’s actions and his scripted speeches is wide and unbridgeable.


You can’t deny that President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE did, in fact, read words of bipartisanship from the teleprompter. His focus on stories of American courage and resilience were powerful. They demonstrated a lesson we should never forget; America’s strength lies in the caliber of its people. But the stories also created an unspoken contrast with Trump’s own trademark insults for opponents and the media. The rhetoric of reconciliation and unity fell flat.

Over the course of the speech, the president served up a menu of the same platform items that have defined his divisive presidency. The theme of unity was peppered throughout, but it lacked the potency necessary to overcome the bitter taste of his warmed-over nationalist, populist agenda.

It was an unremarkable reiteration of the same impossible promises we’ve heard before. He swears he’ll tackle the opioid epidemic, despite the fact that his opioid policy “expert,” a 24-year-old campaign flack, stepped down just days ago after it was discovered that he lied on his resume. He re-announced his commitment to infrastructure spending, reminding many of us of his disastrous “infrastructure week”, without even a loose explanation of how he’ll pay for the $1.5 trillion promise and tackle a ballooning national debt.

In being so unextraordinary, last night’s speech stands in sharp contrast to the president’s angry, fiery inauguration speech of a year ago. Gone was the “American carnage”, replaced by the assertion that there’s no better time than the present to live the American dream. Some will likely find comfort in hearing the president’s brand of populism repackaged in softer, gentler language.

Despite the rhetorical upgrade, familiar divisive and damaging themes filled this speech: the scapegoating of immigrants for crime and unemployment, playing upon economic strife to push isolationism, and, of course, the so-called great wall. It’s not the tone or ferocity of nationalist and populist pitches that make them dangerous to democracy. Rather, it is the ease with which nationalist appeals are turned into wedges to attack political opponents and split the country apart. Nothing typified this danger more than the scene of two families, grieving over their lost children, as the president cooly twisted their tragedy into a screed against immigration as a whole. Not even appeals to unity can cut the vitriol which underpins the president’s nationalism.


In fact, that’s what is most chilling about the tele-prompted Trump. Performances like last night’s speech bely the fact that he and his advisors know full well that Americans yearn for a more perfect union, for the ideals of liberty, equality, and unity. Yet they remain unwilling to commit this administration to anything more than lip-service to those ideals.

Even as he sang the praises of national unity, he turned immigrants into boogeymen, blaming them for depressed wages and a suggested surge in crime. In reviewing a year that saw increased racial strife, including white supremacist rallies organized in Charlottesville and elsewhere, the president didn’t bother to address pressing issues of racism and division. At a time when women from across the political spectrum are standing up to sexual harassment and assault, the president remained silent, refusing to lend the weight of his office to such an important cause.

Again, it’s nothing new for this administration. The president declared as early as 2015 that he would “be a great unifier.” Yet he’s routinely stayed silent on the most dangerous tendencies of his base’s fringe elements, even famously saying that there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Va..

He understands that calls for unity will garner him applause. But beyond the appeal for praise, he’s shown no real commitment to bringing Americans together. Last night’s speech was not functionally different from others he’s given as a candidate and president. Nationalism and populism with a sprinkling of aspirational rhetoric is still, at its heart, nationalism and populism.

Mindy Finn is the co-founder of pro-democracy organization Stand Up Republic and founder of non-profit Empowered Women. She was the vice presidential running mate for 2016 Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin. Follow Finn on Twitter @mindyfinn.