A tale of two Trumps

The State of the Union address presented two versions of Donald Trump. I have often wished that the nation could be governed by the teleprompter Trump instead of the impulsive Trump. The former showed up last night, appearing at times restrained, aspirational, and tempered. “We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future,” he said. Amen.

The other President Trump appeared as well. He was uncompromising and took a hard line, painting a dark picture of an America about to be invaded by MS-13 gangs and turned into a socialist state. One version of Trump brought us to a collective high in recognizing World War II veterans. The other fell flat with contortion and obsession. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” Trump declared.

{mosads}He was not the only contradiction in terms. The House chamber was filled with fiery Republican ovations and icy Democratic glares. There were flashes of spontaneity, like when Trump boasted about women filling “58 percent of the newly created jobs last year.” Female lawmakers dressed in solidarity in white, many of whom now have jobs as members of Congress because they ran in response to his record on women, rose in celebration. “Great,” Trump said, “Really great. Congratulations.”

The irony may have been lost on Trump, but it was a bonding moment. Every State of the Union is grand vision and tactical pivots. Presidents reach out to the opposition with one hand and pound them with the other. The rhetoric soars but, like bubbles from a wand, pops quickly in the air.

But this State of the Union reflected a deeper bipolarity in the electorate. Buffeted by the financial crisis a decade ago, we have swung wildly in our political choices. In 2008, we elected Barack Obama. In 2010, we elected a Tea Party Congress to block him. In 2012, we reelected Obama. In 2014, we retained a Republican majority to check him. In 2016, we elected Donald Trump. In 2018, we generated a Democratic House to stop him.

The great seal of the republic should feature a neck brace. The country is not divided as much as it is uncertain. There is broad public consensus that wages are stagnating, medical costs are skyrocketing, corruption is deepening, and infrastructure is decaying. The 2008 economic meltdown whacked the middle class on its heads, and we have been in a collective daze, stumbling in search for the right cure for our deep national wounds.

Some of the prescriptions mentioned last night will help. Yet others are bromides, while still others will do more harm than good for the country. The State of the Union is volatile. It will take much more than a scrolling teleprompter to stabilize America. Those are simply sounds of silence.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is the incoming director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. He is on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Barack Obama Congress Donald Trump Politics Steve Israel White House

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