Ten observations on President Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address

  1. Some political science context is important. Most research shows that presidential addresses generally don’t shift public opinion on issues nor do they usually affect a president’s approval ratings. Also, presidential State of the Union proposals rarely become law. So in terms of the substantive effect of translating rhetoric into tangible political outcomes, the State of the Union is usually not terribly effective. I expect much will be the same this time around as well.
  2. Instead, State of the Union addresses are important rituals in American democracy. They give the president the opportunity to share his (or someday her) priorities and values, and an opportunity to parties to signal to their constituents, via their level and length of applause, how much they agree with the president’s agenda and values. This is important information for elected officials to provide to voters, as it enhances the ability for voters to hold elected officials accountable for their public stands on important political issues.
  3. Much to my great surprise, the first 45 minutes or so of the President’s speech was surprisingly bland, normal, and completely unlike his Twitter, campaign, and governing rhetoric. This does not negate, of course, the thousands of things he has done and said to weaken democratic norms and institutions in the United States, but if he behaved on Twitter and in other public forums the way he did in the first 45 minutes of his State of the Union address, he might be a less unpopular and more successful president. Given his patterns of past behavior, though, I’m not optimistic.
  4. For the first 45 minutes or so, President Trump’s rhetoric in this speech was more or less within the mainstream of traditionally conservative political ideology, and not at all in harmony with the more populist authoritarian rhetoric that he usually uses on Twitter and other public forums. Which Trump is the real Trump? I strongly suspect the latter.
  5. “So tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” This is the only line that I saw that could reasonably construed as clearly authoritarian, unless clarified by strong and clear definitions as to what “fail the American people” means. (A view, by the way, expressed by both liberals and conservatives.)
  6. Around the 50-minute point, President Trump veered full-out nativist and anti-immigrant. From a personal perspective, it’s heartbreaking for me to see how much success political leaders have had over the past several years demonizing immigrants and refugees. Empirical evidence directly refutes what the president said about immigrants toward the end of his speech. For example, immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans and are a strength to our economy. It’s sad, on a personal level, to see someone who promised to “build a wall” and claimed that Mexicans are “murderers and rapists” win a major party’s nomination and then later win a general election to be the chief representative of our country’s values and priorities.
  7. Given the talk about border security, it’s helpful to remember that research has shown that increased border security in the late 20th century actually increased the size of the undocumented population in the United States, see here.
  8. I’m glad to see the president publicly support the right of Iranians to protest against their government. Russian and Chinese citizens, though, and doing the same thing, and yet we see no similar signals of support from the U.S. president.
  9. I appreciate the president’s rhetorical support of liberal democracy toward the end of his State of the Union address. I wish his more normal rhetoric, which regularly devalues the freedom of press, the independence of the judiciary and FBI, and the integrity of our election processes were more in line with the rhetoric of his State of the Union address. It’s difficult to take him at his word when most of his rhetoric outside this setting is to the contrary.
  10. Kennedy’s Democratic response was surprisingly conventional. At a time where the most salient differences between the two major political parties in the U.S. concern what used to be non-partisan liberal democratic norms and institutions, the Democrats focus their response on traditional partisan contrasts. It’s not necessarily bad or wrong, but risks normalizing the decline of democratic norms as something not worth highlighting as the most important thing that Democrats would (theoretically) do differently if elected. Instead, I would have advised him to look America in the eye and said: “Look at Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Russia, etc. Your president is slowly turning the U.S. into an illiberal democracy like those countries, and the majority party in Congress is letting him because tax reform and other legislative priorities are more important to them. If elected, we won’t do that.”

Finally, here’s a list of fact checks for the president’s address. Politifact also has some good analysis.

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