Halfway though President Trump’s 90-minute State of the Union (SOTU) address Tuesday, it suddenly struck me: This guy is good at this.
Of course he is. This is a man who spent 14 years as host of television reality shows, most notably, The Apprentice.
Standing at the podium in the House chamber, the President was in his element. He was the star of his reality show. Members of Congress and the nation, watched him perform.
Half the Congress cheered on cue. They rose to their feet in their enthusiasm. The other half remained respectfully sullen and subdued with only the occasional moan.
What struck me halfway through the speech was the confident manner in which the President stayed on script and especially the way he read the description of guests chosen to illustrate his vision of the state of our union.
Trump followed the formula set by another actor-president, Ronald Reagan, the first president to recognize an invited guest during his State of the Union address in 1982.
Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, authors of The American Presidency Project, have recorded the annual guest list of those who have been introduced by presidents.
They note that President Bill Clinton, who delivered the only two SOTU addresses longer than Trump’s, spoke on February 4, 1997, and as his first guest, he identified the first Chinese-American state governor, Governor Gary Locke, a Democrat from the state of Washington.
In his 1997 SOTU speech, Clinton highlighted his support of education when he highlighted two students from Illinois, Chris Getsler and Kristen Tanner, both of whom “were among the students who tied for first in the world in science and came in second in math in the Third International Math and Science Study”. Clinton also recognized their teacher, Sue Winski.
Clinton wanted the nation to understand him as welcoming to immigration and supportive of education.
The vision President Trump brings to the White House is dark in tone, white in racial color, and militaristic in style. His “base” responds to the simplistic reality which his vision creates.
President Trump is not subtle. He says what is on his mind at a given moment. He was following a script at the SOTU, which we must assume he rehearsed and knew what he wanted to say.
His speech writers had followed the formula used by presidents since Reagan, sprinkling his speech with introductions of guests in the hall.
Kashana Cauley, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, writes what she saw behind Trump’s guest list.
President Trump made tokens of his minority guests, which underscored the point that he doesn’t quite consider nonwhite people to be on a par with white Americans. Corey Adams, a black welder, was brought out as cover for the tax cut his employers at Staub Manufacturing Solutions in Dayton, Ohio, received under the Republicans’ tax plan.
Mr. Adams was in fact a reminder that working-class black people could reap minuscule benefits from tax cuts that will largely make the rich richer. But that’s not all: President Trump also needed to tell us that Mr. Adams was an “all-American worker” to assure his xenophobic base that Mr. Adams couldn’t possibly hail from somewhere else.
President Trump also introduced us to Celestino Martinez, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who led an operation on Long Island to track down gang members, including members of MS-13. Mr. Trump introduced Mr. Martinez right after saying, “Americans are dreamers, too,” to insult recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and illustrate that his American dream, instead of meaning the freedom to seek refuge on our shores and work toward a satisfying future, is based on arresting gang members. To make a Latino the face of ICE is a wink to Mr. Trump’s base. It also says that Latinos can be trusted to follow the Trump agenda and throw people who look like them out of the country if they need to.
The most egregious case of tokenism was that of Evelyn Rodriguez and Freddy Cuevas, a couple whose daughter, Kayla Cuevas, was killed by MS-13 gang members on Long Island in 2016. Three days ago, Ms. Rodriguez said in an interview that she was happy to be invited to attend the State of the Union address but that her attendance wasn’t about immigration.
“I want him to ensure that we’re going to get the proper funding for the resources for our kids,” she said. “I’m not here for anyone’s political gain.” She added, “Everyone has the right to the American dream, and that should be there for them.”
President Trump ignored Ms. Rodriguez’s wishes. He pointed the couple out, claimed that bad immigration policy allowed the members of MS-13 who killed their daughter to come into the country and asked Congress to close “deadly” immigration loopholes that he blamed for her death. He used Ms. Rodriguez’s pain to call for policies that she opposes.
Kashana Curley opened her essay with what President Trump had told reporters would be the theme of his speech: American unity.
Before his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump invited news correspondents to the White House, where he told them, “I would like to see the country united.” But hours later, he gave a speech meant to rally only part of the country.
He complimented coal and welding in a love letter to the white working classes of Appalachia and the Midwest. By admonishing people who don’t stand for the national anthem, he reminded us that as president, he has picked fights with black NFL players protesting police brutality. He repeatedly disparaged nonwhite people during his speech.
Instead of unifying the country, President Trump made it clear, yet again, that he supports only white Americans — to hell with everyone else.
After listing “token” minorities that were on President Trump’s guest list, Curley concluded:
President Trump’s message is clear: Acceptable minorities work as ICE agents, help their employers take advantage of tax breaks and serve as visible reminders that people are killed by immigrants and foreigners.
This fatalist, white nationalist view of the world is a reminder that if Tuesday night was about unity, Mr. Trump cares to unite only white Americans.
Harsh words, but appropriate to the occasion. It also important to remember that the cheers and applause for the President’s speech came from congressional members of his party.
What exactly does that tell us about the state of our union?