He did it.
The polls agree, he done good.
He went before Congress and gave them information of the state of the union and recommended legislation he deemed necessary and expedient. He didn’t say anything incendiary, he didn’t veer wildly off script, he delivered a cogent and well-prepared speech. If you were watching the NBC coverage (like I was – they try for bipartisanship at least), you would have heard a panel unanimously agree that the president seemed reserved.
In short, he seemed, for that hour and a half, like a person qualified to lead the world’s most powerful nation. Or at least someone capable of putting on that act.
And that’s what last night was, a calculated and well-executed performance of statesmanship, and nothing more. He still managed to lie, to distort data, to self-aggrandize through falsehood. The fact that he managed to seem presidential while doing it should not impress anyone.
Remember every president in history? How they managed to seem presidential the whole time? We cannot reward Trump for rising to that low, low bar of his office.
So, here is a catalogue of my gripes with things he said in his address. Some are based on factual inaccuracies, others were statements which irked me personally, and some are a larger complaint about the structure of the State of the Union address. I make no apology for this reaction, and I will make no effort to cherry pick moments of brightness from his address. He is a bad president, with bad plans, who lies consistently to the American people; one capable speech is not enough to make me forget.
The president said that he has passed the largest tax cuts in American history. This is patently false – the Kennedy, Reagan, Bush and Obama administrations passed more substantial tax cuts than the one recently passed by Republicans. For comparison’s sake, the cuts of the Reagan administration represented 2.89% of the GDP while Trumps account for 0.9%.
He said that open borders were allowing drugs, gangs and low-wage workers to pour into America and disrupt communities. Though there is no denying that a disproportionate amount of drug traffic occurs over the Southern border, there is no evidence that tight border security would do much to alleviate that influx. Additionally, according to PEW Research Centre, the reality is that low-wage workers are occupying a cross-section of jobs and that it is inaccurate to say that those jobs would be filled by citizens if they were not filled by migrants.
Trump claimed that after ‘years of wage stagnation,’ we are finally seeing some growth in America. Wages have been steadily increasing by between 2.2-2.6% every year since 2010, and the Federal Reserve still considers that a paltry improvement. There is no indication that it has improved because of Trump’s policies.
He claimed that America was bringing back the auto industry. Sales of American-made cars fell last year for the first time since the bailout. Also, if you’re going to attribute the continued prosperity of auto manufacture to anything, it might be that multi-billion-dollar stimulus package they got in 2009.
He beat the drum of clean coal, family or chain migration, the successful repeal of Obamacare – all of which are not true or are based in such a narrow understanding of the broader picture as to be unworthy of further mention.
In a particularly irksome moment, the president reminded Americans that flags on soldiers graves were the reason “we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the pledge of allegiance and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.” Two problems: One, please do not use an address to Congress to continue to attack athletes exercising their constitutional right to protest. Two, the reason Americans perform these rituals to the symbols of their nation is to celebrate the principles for which it stands and upholds in its action (and so if those principles and that action are out of step, the protest mentioned in point one becomes an equivalent patriotic duty), not because the flag adorns the graves of fallen soldiers. Their sacrifice is made in service of those high ideals, and his use of their deaths as a tool to dig on some football players and pander to his base is disgusting.
However, Trump may have done the State of the Union one valuable service, which is to expose it as the opportunity for lazy pandering that it is. If Trump can clean himself up enough to perform this ritual, what can we conclude about the nature of the address? It is nothing more than a braggadocious and easily hyperbolized laundry list of quasi-achievements. The legacy of many presidents is difficult to determine in their term, much less in the same year in which they tout these “achievements.”
The nature of the address harkens to a time with a substantially smaller media, a more detached nation with fewer means of constant communication, an opportunity for the president to address large concerns. In the modern world, it is a disingenuous hype speech, a contradiction to what everyone knows to be true, which is that the state of this union is complex, discontinuous and in constant flux.
Maybe it’s time to do away with it altogether.