State of the Union addresses have long since devolved into political Kabuki Theatre. Accomplishments lauded and future promises are all to be taken with a hefty grain of salt. The play continued on Tuesday night as President Donald Trump delivered his 2019 version of this self-congratulatory exercise.
His remarks generally followed the normative pattern (a rare thing for this President), but we can learn much about this administration and the true state of the nation if we break down the speech into two categories: things said and things unsaid.
Things said: After stepping on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s traditional introduction, the President jumped right in, calling for unity and a reduction to partisan bickering. “We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution, and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good” Fair enough (and good alliteration), but how ironic given that at lunch just hours earlier, the President lashed out at his political foes and as a nation, we’ve just emerged from the longest government shutdown in history—largely a partisan pissing match initiated by this President over funding for his border wall.
He called for some good things, tipping his hat (again) to infrastructure improvements and calling for a new AIDS initiative, and a plan to bring troops home from “endless wars” in places like Syria and Afghanistan (though the specifics of such plans continue to be elusive).
As someone who spends a lot of time with words, I appreciate how the President bracketed his remarks with a beginning and end that lifted up heroes of World War II—from D Day to the liberation of Jews from Dachau. It is increasingly important to recognize the bravery of the “greatest generation,” especially as their ranks among us are thinned by advancing years. The President did that. After the tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we are reminded again of the ongoing terror of anti-Semitism, a significant motive behind recent increases in hate crimes. So, Trump’s remarks were okay at the beginning and at the end, but in the middle, the speech left much wanting—both in things said and unsaid.
For example, this statement: “An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”
What does one thing have to do with the other? War and peace are one thing. Distractions caused by investigations may impair the pace of legislation. But why are these two things linked in the same sentence? How do they relate? At best, this was a silly attempt at rhyming so the President could remember the trope for future speeches; at worst, it was a thinly veiled threat that if the Special Counsel and House-led investigations continue, we will go to war.
Then, there were the things unsaid. While we were awash in Hallmark moments—childhood cancer, patriotic veterans, wrongly accused individuals who endured decades of incarceration—little narrative time was devoted to related crises that involve so many Americans, and even fewer words on how to address these concerns.
We were touched by the child with cancer, but we heard almost nothing about health care, the opioid epidemic, or society’s challenges with diabetes or mental illness.
The President spent lots of time on border security, but none on the human tragedy that his policies have spawned on the southern border—no images of families torn asunder or backlogs of asylum seekers in immigration courts.
We had ample opportunities to thank our World War II veterans, and even the sailors who perished twenty years ago in the USS Cole, but nothing about the impact of homelessness, addiction, suicide or PTSD facing so many of our current veterans. What are the administration’s plans for today’s vets?
There was no talk of climate change—a true national security crisis—or acknowledgment of the patience and perseverance of government workers who suffered hardships during the recent shutdown.
He affirmed the percentage of women joining the workforce and even (grudgingly?) the brilliantly bright image of diversity among women now serving in Congress in their suffragette white. But, he steered clear of reproductive rights, focused sharply on abortion and continued with the tired (and highly exaggerated) stories of women raped in the caravans that trek north from Central America.
And, shockingly, in the midst of all the accolades, there was no mention of black history month or of our civil rights heroes, the progress they’ve made or the continued challenges they face in seeking racial justice in this country.
So, while the opening and closing moments of the State of the Union contained heart-thumping bookends, the bookshelf itself was filled with glaring omissions, shop-warn exaggerations and callous blind-spots. (Sigh) I wish I could say that we should demand more, but such expectations have long since gone by the boards.