WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats, admonished by their leaders to avoid overt displays of disapproval during President Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday, mostly limited their acts of protest in the House chamber to symbolic clothing, pins, and special guests.
But Representative Joe Kennedy III, a Massachusetts Democrat and rising star in the party, channeled some of the collective disdain his colleagues were asked to stifle.
Kennedy delivered the party’s stinging rebuttal to Trump from Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, where students and staff spent the week busily scouring the automotive shop and baking treats in anticipation of his visit.
With a muscle car in the background and cheering students in front of him, Kennedy painted a bleak picture of a country riven by mass shootings, white supremacist marches, a “war” on environmental protections, and a Russia “knee deep” in American democracy.
“Many have spent the past year anxious, angry, afraid,’’ Kennedy said. “We all feel the fault lines of a fractured country.’’
He dismissed soaring stocks under Trump as good for investors’ portfolios but bad for workers who aren’t getting “their fair share of the reward.”
Without mentioning Trump by name, Kennedy described an amoral, bullying president obsessed with celebrity and crowd size.
“For them,’’ Kennedy said of Trump and his administration, “dignity isn’t something you’re born with, but something you measure — by your net worth, your celebrity, your headlines, your crowd size, not to mention, the gender of your spouse, the country of your birth, the color of your skin, the God of your prayers.”
Kennedy, a millionaire scion of the famed political family, pushed the official Democratic message of a “better deal,” with paid family leave, higher wages, and affordable child care and education. He argued that Trump is turning American life “into a zero-sum game” where one group can win only if another loses.
“We are bombarded with one false choice after another: coal miners or single moms, rural communities or inner cities, the coast or the heartland,” Kennedy said. “So here is the answer Democrats offer tonight: We choose both. We fight for both.”
He ended the speech with a parting shot at Trump, before asking the American people to “have faith.”
“Bullies may land a punch,” Kennedy said. “They might leave a mark. But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future.”
Kennedy’s speech was in sharp contrast to Trump’s, who painted an upbeat picture of a “safe, strong, and proud America.”
“There has never been a better time to start living the American dream,” the president proclaimed to cheering Republicans and stone-faced Democrats.
Earlier Tuesday, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California warned Democratic lawmakers not to walk out of Trump’s speech or draw attention to themselves with any disruptive protest, insisting they leave the focus on the president.
Democrats said ahead of the speech they did not plan to “pull a Wilson” — a reference to the South Carolina Republican congressman, Joe Wilson, who interrupted President Obama during a joint session of Congress speech in 2009 with an infamous outburst: “You lie!”
“I’m not going to turn into Wilson and yell ‘liar’ or anything,” said Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, a liberal firebrand. “I do have some level of class. I understand decorum!”
Representative Richard Neal of Massachusetts said he did not expect any disruptions.
“I think we were all embarrassed as members of the institution about the outburst on the other side,” Neal said.
But many Democrats showed their disapproval in silent ways. Pelosi and dozens of other Democratic lawmakers dressed in all black to signal their solidarity with the #MeToo movement against sexual assault. Some added on a red button with the word “Recy” written on it — referring to Recy Taylor, a black woman in Alabama who fought to bring six white men who raped her to justice in the 1940s, helping spark the civil rights movement.
The all-black clothing matched the funereal mood on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Democrats received Trump’s speech coldly, staying silently seated as he touted economic gains and the tax cuts Republicans passed last year. They stood and clapped rarely, such as when the president praised veterans and a small-business owner. When Trump mentioned appointing a record number of judges, a few Democrats hissed and booed. Some laughed when he told them to “watch” and see how drug prices would come down under his leadership.
More than 40 Democrats brought “Dreamers” as their official guests to the event, and many wore colorful butterfly pins to show their support for them. The young immigrants who lack permanent legal status have become bargaining chips in increasingly toxic appropriations negotiations between Republicans and Democrats. Trump has said he would support the group’s permanent legalization if lawmakers agree to hand over billions for his wall on the Southern border and dramatically cut legal immigration levels.
Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio, announced he’d leave his guest’s seat vacant to protest a constituent who was recently deported and all people “wrongfully targeted for deportation” by the Trump administration.
Other Democrats wore purple ribbons to support funding to fight the opioid crisis and rebuke what they call the president’s inaction on the issue.
Before Trump even opened his mouth on Tuesday, Democrats vigorously sought to offer a “pre-buttal” of his speech, pooh-poohing any claims of economic or legislative success.
“President Trump was handed an already healthy economy by his predecessor,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York said on the Senate floor. “Like many things in his life, he inherited the healthy economy.”
Liz Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com.