Well, one good thing came out of the State of the Union that Donald Trump delivered on Tuesday night: It ended the government shutdown. To be more precise, the shutdown ended because of Trump’s endless, yawning need to have his sneering mug photographed as he defiles the institutions of the world’s oldest existing democracy. There is little doubt that when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Trump that his camera time was canceled until the shutdown ended, that hastened his capitulation.
Unfortunately, Tuesday’s speech showed that Trump has learned nothing, not that this is any surprise. Trump spent the first 72 years of life learning nothing, so there was no reason to think he would start now. Sure enough, the speech showed that Trump is the same person he has been for the past three years, and likely his whole life: A liar, a racist and a man who is willing to ruin the country for no other reason than power and personal gain.
Before the speech, White House aides told reporters that Trump would deliver a positive message, focused on bipartisanship and moving forward. They leaked quotes about how “we can break decades of political stalemate” and “bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future.”
All the skepticism was warranted. There’s not a living soul on the planet that believes Trump gives a single hoot about bridging divisions, and anyway Trump spent the hours beforehand on Twitter making petty remarks about Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and demonizing immigrants as criminals. Sure enough, the opening remarks involved Trump saying “a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda.” a phrasing based in the longstanding right-wing habit of refusing to call the Democratic Party by its name.
Surprising no one, Trump continued his multi-year effort to mainstream talking points taken straight from white supremacist websites. For instance, Trump argued that “politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards,” a direct echo of the white supremacist accusation that diversity is something elites force on working white people, while remaining in privileged enclaves themselves.
The speech dwelled at length on Trump’s efforts to convince the public that a surge of crime is coming over the border. This campaign that has reached the point where you get the sense Trump believes that Latino immigrants are the only source of crime in the United States.
Trump brought out a family who had members murdered by immigrants and declared dramatically, “No one should ever have to suffer the horrible heartache that they have had to endure.”
Indeed, murder is bad. But Trump’s implication that murder is a direct result of immigration is simply false. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. If Trump wants less murder in communities, as he claims, then he should welcome more immigrants. If he wants less sexual violence, as he claims, he should recommend that sex offenders — particularly those caught on tape confessing to sexual assault, as he was — be arrested and convicted at higher rates. Perhaps he could turn himself over to the police to set an example.
As befits Trump’s ever-trolling nature, this speech was constructed as an elaborate troll of the left. Repeatedly, Trump pretended to care about progressive values such as criminal justice reform or women’s equality in the workplace, and then he unleashed virulently racist and misogynist rhetoric that revealed his true values.
He played this trick with the immigration issue. Right before a lengthy diatribe painting dark-skinned immigrants as an invading horde bringing violence and disease — he literally invoked racist fears about “hospitals that are so crowded you can’t get in” to denounce nonwhite immigrants — Trump bragged about bipartisan criminal justice reform. The scheme wasn’t sophisticated. The criminal justice issue becomes a cover story so Trump can claim not to be a racist when people point out how extraordinarily racist this speech was.
He ran a similar game with women’s rights. Trump made some routine remarks pretending to care about the surge in women’s employment and the record-setting numbers of women in Congress. And then he followed it up by launching a nasty rhetorical attack on reproductive rights, by joining in the festival of demagoguery about late-term abortions.
“Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth,” he claimed, demonizing women who terminate pregnancies for medically necessary reasons, and calling for a law that would likely condemn many women to serious illness or death.
This gambit, using late-term abortions — which are extremely rare and always medically indicated — as a stalking horse to ban all abortions, showed Trump’s true colors: He opposes women’s equality and is happy to use mandatory childbirth as a weapon to cripple their ability to control their economic and family lives for themselves.
Luckily, the Democratic women in Congress had a good time undermining Trump’s efforts to troll liberals with his feigned concern for women’s equality. When he mentioned the gains made by women, the mostly white-clad female Democrats exploded into cheers and dancing in the seats, which created a visual reminder that the female representation in Congress comes almost exclusively on the Democratic side — and there is no way to separate support for reproductive rights and support for women’s equality.
Perhaps the most consequential sentence of the address was a short one, early in the speech.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” Trump said, in what his speechwriter likely thought was a clever bit of rhyming.
The comment was clearly an implied threat that Trump is willing to tank the economy or jeopardize Americans’ safety if special counsel Robert Mueller, federal prosecutors in New York or House Democrats insist on investigating the president’s endless assortment of possible crimes and definite corruption.
Embedding a threat in the State of the Union is a bold move, but it also shows how desperate Trump is getting. The circumstances of his inauguration, long believed to have been a pass-through for all manner of money-laundering and grift, are finally getting a strong look from the U.S. attorney in New York. His former lawyer, Michael Cohen, has agreed to testify to Congress. And Mueller’s arrests keep getting closer to the president himself. Trump can’t plead ignorance any more and is swiftly running out of room to plead innocence. So threats are all he has.
But the threat still felt largely toothless. Certainly Pelosi didn’t seem ruffled. And that’s the biggest takeaway from the 2019 State of the Union: Trump’s shtick of using racism to distract from his corruption is finally wearing thin. Let’s hope that by this time next year, he’s sweating bullets through the speech — or not giving it at all.