Scenes of monarchy at the State of the Union
President Donald Trump didn’t reprise the phrase, but “American carnage” was one theme of this week’s State of the Union address – even if the speech was leavened with more optimism than his inaugural address. Fear was everywhere. Of rogue states, nuclear weapons, terrorism, gangs and waves of immigration. This last point – which Trump personalised by having in attendance the family of a teenage girl, murdered by an undocumented immigrant – was a significant element of the speech.
Trump implored Congress to accept his immigration reforms. They would, he said, make eligibility for citizenship more stringent, increase funding for border forces and curtail “chain immigration” – otherwise known as family reunification. This part is especially worrisome. From the Australian experience, we know that multiculturalism’s success is largely dependent on family settlement. Trump seems to view immigrants not as prospective citizens but as mere units of labour. If he is concerned about social fragmentation – and elsewhere in the speech he stressed the sanctity of the “nuclear family” – splintering families is a perverse way of addressing it.
Despite the gloom, Trump said optimism could be found in the economy, which, by most markers, is healthy. “Since the election, we have created 2.4 million new jobs,” he said, “including 200,000 new jobs in manufacturing alone. After years of wage stagnation, we are finally seeing rising wages.”
This is true, but context matters. It is unusual to date jobs growth from the election – the Obama administration was effective until Trump’s inauguration, more than two months later. Since then, 2.1 million jobs have been added to the United States economy. It’s healthy, and Trump is right to celebrate it. But it is also a continuation of a trend. In the final three years of the Obama administration, three million, 2.7 million and 2.2 million jobs were created, respectively. Trump inherited an improving economy.
Similarly, when Trump boasted of attracting a $US350 billion investment from Apple – largely manifest in the development of new plants – it was a continuation of a trend. Of the $US350 billion, about 10 per cent was new investment.
Last year was a year of precious few legislative achievements for the president, which accounts for the time Trump devoted to tax cuts. To be sure, the bill is significant, but it’s very far from the “greatest tax cut in America’s history”, as Trump is fond of saying. Equally misleading was Trump’s declaration that the “war” on “clean, beautiful coal” had ended. Trump was implying that onerous environmental regulations were damaging the coal industry and, by extension, the American economy. Yet coal’s greatest enemy – to continue Trump’s war analogy – is not regulation but the abundance of natural gas courtesy of fracking technology.
As is obligatory with these speeches, there were in the chamber citizens who had distinguished themselves with bold acts of charity or courage. There was a police officer and his wife who had adopted the neglected child of a drug addict. A special agent of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who had defied death threats and locked up gang members. A war veteran who, after being blinded and maimed, re-enlisted with the Marine Corps. And a US Coast Guard member who had rescued dozens of people from Houston’s great flood. I’m not so cynical as to be untouched by the tributes, but I am sensitive to the injustice of a draft-dodging miscreant popularly anointing these heroes.
Touching also were the grief-crumpled faces of the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student arrested and likely tortured by the North Korean regime. His comatose body was returned to the US before his death. Otto’s parents, the president said, could powerfully testify to the unique evil of North Korea. As could Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who, having lost a leg and a father, escaped the country on the crutches he triumphantly lifted this week in the US Capitol Building.
Ideally, the State of the Union wouldn’t exist. In its pageantry and regal deference, it resembles the monarchy the US violently rejected in its own founding. There is the cabinet’s procession through the chamber, obsequiously heralded by members of Congress and their guests. The theatrical sycophancy is bettered only by the arrival of the president, iconically announced by the sergeant-at-arms. Then there is the presence of the First Lady, an aloof and unelected figure, but one whose proximity confers importance upon a guest.
While the king spoke, and the queen’s “box” served as an aquarium for the country’s soul, at least half the chamber was worshipful. In faithfully observing the applause lines, the Republican audience resembled a yo-yo. Equally bad was the hollow solemnity from reporters, which began days earlier. None of this is unique to Trump. It’s true of all State of the Unions. Some 235 years on, we can say that America’s War of Independence did not quell its royal enthusiasm.
These regal pretensions appalled Thomas Jefferson, who in 1801 respectfully declined to address Congress and instead supplied a written brief. Jefferson was within his rights: the US Constitution only vaguely compels a president “from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient” and nowhere stipulates it must be spoken. Jefferson’s example was sustained for more than a century until Woodrow Wilson became president.
Despite the heraldry, the speeches can still matter. George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, given just months after the September 11 attacks, was used to prepare Americans for the Iraq War by including the Middle Eastern nation as one of three constituting an “axis of evil”. Bush’s approval ratings at the time were 84 per cent – compared with Trump’s 39 per cent this week – and his imperial certitude comforted his shaken country, but it did so inversely to the comfort of his allies. Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, would later write in her memoirs that the phrase “helped brand the Bush administration as radical and bellicose”.
Richard Nixon closed his 1974 State of the Union address by appealing for the end of investigations into the Watergate abuses, which included his own florid criminality. It didn’t help, and just months later he resigned in disgrace – never jailed, but imprisoned by his own personality.
Nixon’s sickly precedent bears uncomfortable comparisons with President Trump. In the hours before his State of the Union address, a Senate committee authorised the publication of a confidential memo regarding alleged abuses of FBI agents investigating the Trump presidential campaign for links to Russia. Its release would ultimately be determined by Trump, who was eager to do so.
Following the State of the Union, FBI director Christopher Wray released this statement: “The FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it. As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
A functional republic oversees its institutions and their use of power. There is a crosshatching of accountability. In despotic regimes, institutions are either annexed by tyrants or disastrously undermined. This is where America is creeping. Trump and his media surrogates have continually undermined the FBI and repeatedly suggested a vast, illicit conspiracy to undermine – or overthrow – the government.
To regard the Russia investigation as some rotten, partisan conspiracy is absurd given what is already established: Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, made secret overtures to Russia while the Obama administration was still effective, and lied about this to the vice-president. He has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Trump’s eldest son, Donald jnr, along with campaign manager Paul Manafort, now indicted, met with a Kremlin-aligned lawyer who was offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump later helped his son construct a misleading defence. During the Republican National Convention, Manafort had also sought to alter the GOP’s position on Russia. As president, Trump volunteered classified information to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in the Oval Office. He sacked the FBI director and, contradicting previous statements, told NBC he had done so because “of the Russia thing”. This is far from an exhaustive list.
What is emerging is historic and world-changing impropriety, and it will abbreviate the televised praise of the speech that Trump’s ego will have relied upon. It also makes silly the popular media phrase “Twitter Trump and Teleprompter Trump” because there is only one Trump: an implacably ignorant and dishonest man.
It is galling to read the asinine “analysis” of the address. Days before the State of the Union, Aaron Kall in USA Today wrote: “Given the recent government shutdown and the plethora of scandals surrounding the Trump administration, Trump’s greatest opportunity for success lies in closely emulating the Bill Clinton addresses of 1996, 1998 and 1999.” Kall simply meant that, like Clinton, Trump should avoid any mention of scandal.
There is little that is fresh or illuminating in the analysis of these addresses. First, because the speech itself often defies it; second, because so much political analysis is a reflexive disgorgement of long inherited formulas. The president was or was not “statesmanlike”. The president did or did not “appeal broadly”. The performance was or was not successful, based on very thin criteria. It is an entirely artificial appraisal, its subject measured by how many standard deviations he moved from the mean.
Happily, there is an abundance of fact-checking. In various annotated versions of Trump’s speech, errors or exaggerations abound. What effect this will have on the reception of the speech is another matter. For now, Trump has declared a “New American moment” – a statement that, for once, is resonantly accurate.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 3, 2018 as "Vexed messages". Subscribe here.