Tuesday night, President Trump drove down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill and declared, as so many presidents before him have done, “the state of our union is strong.”
In reality, it’s anything but.
Today, America is in a state of disunion. Our democratic institutions and the rule of law are under direct and unremitting assault. Congress and the executive branch — with hundreds of key positions still unfilled — are paralyzed by dysfunction, incompetence, and gridlock. Across America, race, gender, class, geography, and, perhaps above all, partisan identification have left us as polarized and divided as ever.
The reason for this is not hard to discern: It’s because of the president of the United States and the political party he leads, which refuses to hold him accountable for his divisive and destructive actions.
All that was on clear display in the State of the Union address that Trump delivered Tuesday night.
Though he called on Democrats and Republicans to “set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve,” his own words belied that uplifting message.
On no issue is Trump’s rhetoric more harmful, more discordant, and less infused with the rhetorical values and spirit of America than immigration.
“For decades,” Trump claimed, “open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”
None of this is true. Not only do immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans, but they represent an economic asset to the United States.
But Trump has making these outlandish and dishonest claims since the moment he announced his candidacy for president. It is his core political message.
Tuesday night he provided us with a depressing reminder. Once again he highlighted the families who have been victimized by undocumented immigrants as if to suggest that these few examples prove that all undocumented immigrants are a threat to American security. He used the M-13 gang as a rhetorical punching bag and updated bogeyman on par with al Qaeda and ISIS.
There were calls for an end to what Trump refers to as “chain migration,” but which immigrant families call family reunification.
He bashed the visa lottery program, which he claimed “randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit, or the safety of the American people.” This too is not true.
He said that his beloved border wall is essential for keeping communities safe, but today most border crossings happen in places where walls and fences already exist — and flows of undocumented immigrants are trending downward.
And most perversely he invoked the DACA program when stating that his plans to limit immigration will protect Americans “and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.”
For millions of Americans, the Dreamers who were brought here as children, were raised in this country, and love this country as much as those who are native born are fellow Americans. Trump treats them as though they are pariahs and parasites, taking jobs, opportunity, and security away from their fellow citizens.
Even when Trump spoke of shared national aspirations and traditions, his words had the opposite effect. He talked about why Americans “salute our flag . . . put our hands on our hearts for the pledge of allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.” After spending months this past fall attacking black football players for kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, Trump’s efforts at unity were instead a reminder of how fundamentally divisive a president he has been — and will continue to be.
The unfortunate reality of Trump’s presidency is that even if he can spend 90 minutes reading pretty words off a teleprompter we know it’s only a matter of time before he takes to Twitter to attack “Crying Chuck Shumer” or “Crooked Hillary Clinton” or Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren. We know that in a speech nominally focused on bringing Americans together, he can’t stop himself from scapegoating and demonizing immigrants.
That’s who Donald Trump is and as long as he remains president, the state of our union will never be strong.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.