In the aftermath of Trump’s slurred, rambling, self-congratulatory State of The Union address, there’s going to be a lot of debate over whether or not he was “presidential.”
Certainly his frequent applause at his own lines was unusual for a State of The Union address, as was his intermittent ordering of the audience to stand, whether through verbal command or forceful hand gesture, but those quirks fade in importance when compared with the substance of his speech.
The divisive, inflammatory rhetoric within his speech begs the question: is anything that our President does, no matter how cruel or childish, “presidential” simply because it was done by a president? The answer, in Trump’s mind, seems to be a firm “yes.”
It is now, for instance, “presidential” to craft a heinous and racist caricature of Mexican immigrants as bloodthirsty drug peddlers who would like nothing better than to kill your children.
So, too, is it presidential to not only defend the decision to inflame tensions in the Middle East by moving America’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but to go a step further to imply that the United Nations is an enemy of America that should have the entirety of its American funding revoked.
Unfortunately, the speech only grew more “presidential” from there. Promising to re-expand the role of Guantanamo Bay? Presidential. Bragging about the stock market on a day that the Dow Jones fell by 363 points? Presidential.
As for the 1.8 million Dreamers set to have their lives ripped away from them as Trump repeatedly backtracks on his promise to greet them with a “Bill of Love?” Well, fuck them, “Americans are dreamers, too.”
Perhaps, however, Trump is looking back to our founding fathers to see what definition of “presidential” he wants to meet. Certainly his gross misrepresentation of our immigration system, where he lied that family reunification visas allow people to “bring over unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” would leave Andrew Jackson swooning.
As Exxon Mobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson stepped down from his company to step up as our new Secretary of State, it seems remarkable that, coincidentally, his company just announced $50 billion in new US-centered investments that Trump could parade about in his speech, even as Exxon Mobil stands to make far more due to Trump’s new tax code grossly favoring the uber-rich. Warren G. Harding, having been complicit in the oily escapades of his own cabinet head throughout the Teapot Dome scandal, would surely empathize.
Trump took the record-low rates in unemployment (which Obama fought for tooth-and-nail), crafted a false narrative of the past, repackaging reality to imply that he alone was responsible the economy’s current upturn. And at the end of the day, is there really anything more presidential than taking the hard work that a person of color put in to build and enrich America, rewriting history and then acting like it was a white man who got us there all along?
As I look over the transcript of his speech again, I’m struck by the sheer volume of topics that went untouched. Women’s rights, maternity leave, reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter, gun control, mass shootings, Russia’s election meddling, the #MeToo movement, police violence, the child poverty rate, the growing income gap, the minimum wage and the rising murder rate all went ignored. Rather, he chose to harp on immigration, play to the most xenophobic parts of his base, and seem to imply that he single-handedly destroyed ISIS in the past 12 months.
His State of the Union address, the second longest in the past 50 years, seemed to be more like a stump speech for his 2020 campaign than the unifying conciliatory message that was promised by White House staff in the days leading up to the speech.
As he continues to give more and more speeches like last week’s, forcing himself harder right and inflaming the hatred and fear of his base, maybe different candidates will step up to speak out against him.
Perhaps we’ll have a Democratic candidate like Kamala Harris or Kirsten Gillibrand ready to wrest power away from him. Maybe we’ll see a challenger like Jeff Flake or Mitt Romney lead a paradigm shift to the mythical “compassionate conservatism” that we’ve been hearing about for decades.
Maybe all that will happen. Or, maybe, we’ll have many more “presidential” years to look forward to.