The idea behind the modern State of the Union address is to celebrate the nation, remind voters of what you’ve done, and set an agenda for the year ahead.
By that standard, President Trump’s first State of the Union was a road to nowhere.
An address that started as an over-the-top exaltation of American grit, goodness, and resolve soon took another of those predictable detours into the dark dystopia Trump sees when he looks at America. That is, a land overrun with illegal immigrants and murderous Latin American gangs, robbed of its wealth, and beset on all sides by shifty trading partners exploiting us at every turn.
So here we are, a nation proving day by day that “no people on Earth are so fearless, or daring, or determined as Americans,” who can climb any mountain, cross any frontier, and meet any challenge — except, of course, that of competing internationally, which is why we must rewrite trade deals and pursue a policy of America first.
If you had to sum the entire muddled mishmash up in a line, it would be: “Our nation has lost its wealth — but we are getting it back so fast.”
That’s because, in the world according to Trump, with his tax cut passed and regulations pared (has ever a regulatory weeding been so celebrated?), foreign automakers are now building plants in the United States, something they supposedly haven’t done in a long, long time. Listening to Trump, one would never know, say, that BMW, with its South Carolina plant, has made itself into this country’s biggest exporter of US-built vehicles. Or that foreign car factories dot the landscape in the South, border South, and Midwest.
And in what sort of strange State of the Union does this serve as an applause line? “Terrorists are not merely criminals. They are unlawful enemy combatants.”
That was Trump’s introduction to his declaration that he would review US detention policy and keep the Guantanamo Bay prison open. “Unlawful enemy combatant” is, as those with long memories may recall, the formulation the George W. Bush administration used to argue — ultimately unsuccessfully — that habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to the inmates there.
Yes, there was the almost mandatory call to bipartisanship: “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people.”
Which, naturally, raised two questions. First, how would he, the most divisive president in modern memory, rise to a standard he has so often fallen far short of? Nary a word on that subject.
Second, in pursuit of what? Which brings us to this speech’s biggest failing: It lacked anything that could properly be called an agenda for which to build bipartisan support.
Trump offered a sentence on “prison” reform, by which he presumably meant criminal justice reform. He restated his terms for a DACA deal — terms already rejected by Democrats.
His brief remarks on infrastructure improvement, a subject that was supposed to be a significant part of this speech, essentially amounted to a call to Congress to find a way to generate $1.5 trillion in new spending, without any presidential endorsement of new revenue sources to do so.
Nor was that the only part of the speech that was a thinly disguised exercise in buck passing. In that category, also count the president’s request that Congress “address the fundamental flaws in the terrible Iran nuclear deal.”
Translation: The president doesn’t want to admit his campaign promise to end the nuclear agreement was foolish, but neither does he want to follow through on that fatuity and end it. So he’ll set Congress up as the fall guy.
Viewed strategically, Trump seemed to be trying to strike an impossible balance: Reinforce his base on its various grievances, resentments, and unrealistic expectations, even as he tried to present himself as a national unifier.
It didn’t work.
If Trump were a professional actor, he’d have an impressive repertoire of oppositional characters he could play:
National leader or base-pleasing partisan.
Would-be conciliator or grudge-fueled ax-grinder.
Nativist demagogue or prospective DACA-deal-doer.
Qualm-calming internationalist or authoritarian-admiring America-firster.
Pragmatic negotiator or ideological absolutist.
And if he alternated theaters and roles week by week or even night by night, we’d marvel at his versatility.
But alas, he’s not a professional actor. He’s an amateur president. And in that capacity, his dizzying succession of alternating roles cancels one another out.
It’s one big reason why he has gotten so little done by way of legislative accomplishments. Tuesday’s speech gave absolutely no indication that he has the intention or capability of changing.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeScotLehigh.