My reactions to President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address

Here are a smattering of my reactions to the president’s 2019 State of the Union address, in no particular order:

I will admit being pleasantly surprised by the first half hour or so of the president’s address. He used traditional civic rhetoric that hearkened to lofty ideals about American values and identity. I appreciated his shout-outs to the D-Day veterans and Buzz Aldrin. His positive words toward criminal justice reform, slow-but-steady economic growth, and (later in the speech) childhood cancer, HIV, children, paid family leave, etc. all conform to what is traditionally expected from a U.S. head of state in a situation like this. This was the type of rhetoric that we’d expect from an otherwise “normal” president. Perhaps this is a preview of a new “softer, gentler Trump” approach that he’ll be trying out for the 2020 campaign? (My strong hunch, based on previous experience, is that he lacks the self-control to keep it up longer than a day or two, but I could be wrong!)

The president made good points about economic figures during his administration. He should be grateful for them. The current state of the economy is what’s keeping his approval rating in the low-40s. If an economic recession hits he’ll likely sink into the 30s or 20s.

At the half hour mark, the president took a strong turn in a nativist direction talking about immigration and border security, etc. I’ve talked about this issue at length previously so I won’t rehash it all here, but in a nutshell: I think reasonable people can disagree about the merits of border security and the most efficient and responsible way to handle immigration… but the rhetoric that the president to describe the immigration “onslaught” simply does not match even a generous interpretation of the facts on the ground about recent immigration rates and the link between immigration and crime rates. This does not surprise me, though, as this has been a central part of the president’s campaign and platform for the past three years. This is the issue that motivates the president’s core base and it makes sense that he would continue to beat the drum on this, despite its highly dubious foundations in objective reality. (Just a few examples of the disconnect between the president’s rhetoric and reality on immigration: here and here.)

“If I had not been elected president, we would right now be in a major war with North Korea.” I look forward to seeing how the historians discuss that line in their future biographies of the president.

The president’s rhetoric about denouncing anti-Semitism might carry more moral force if he hadn’t declined to reject endorsements from David Duke and the KKK, not to mention praising “some” members of the Charlottesville 2017 white supremacy gathering as “very fine people.”

“Democratic socialism” is NOT the same thing as “Soviet/authoritarian socialism.” To conflate the two is understandable for those who don’t study the nuances of political ideologies, but is (in my view) a strawman argument and lazy thinking. The “socialism” that the president is referring to is “democratic socialism” which is basically just “hyper-liberalism” and is not the same thing as authoritarianism. (See more here.) Democratic socialism is certainly an ideology worth debating, of course, but everyone would do better to know what they’re talking about before denouncing it. That all said, I think there’s an obligation for self-described Democratic Socialists to do more to explain to the public how they are different than other types of socialists, because it’s not obvious or intuitive.

Good for the president for praising women in the workforce and in Congress. I hope that his rhetoric will begin to reflect more respect for women, both in wider society and personally. His rhetoric throughout his life, during the campaign, and early in his presidency has not conveyed the same respect for women that was communicated in his address.

In sum: this speech suggests to me that Donald Trump is certainly capable of bipartisanship and keeping his rhetoric within the boundaries of normal political traditions and expectations. Given his past behavior, however, I will be surprised to see this style of rhetoric survive past the end of the speech. That said, I could be wrong.

Finally, here’s a good summary of the political science research on the effect of State of the Union addresses: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/3-reasons-that-state-of-the-union-speeches-dont-matter/

 

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