The State of the Union speech is a unique American political tradition. The rest of us should be grateful that it is. Unique, I mean.
All those supposedly impromptu standing ovations – actually well-orchestrated posturing – that greet every cliché, platitude and self-righteous pronouncement from the podium are designed to convey the impression of unity in the body politic, and the nation at large, when it is patently obvious that no such unity exists in either place.
In that regard, the second of Donald Trump’s annual presentations to Congress did no more than follow the precedents set by his predecessors of both parties: pleasing declarations of hot-air patriotism followed by partisan provocations. All presidents do it. What they are saying is “come together in order to do what I want you to do”.
Who said this? “It is not enough to come together only in times of tragedy. Tonight, I call on all of us 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.” If you guessed Barack Obama you would be wrong. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then? Wrong again. It was Donald Trump, in last night’s address.
The very same Donald Trump who, in the next breath, said he would build a wall, or something like it, on America’s southern border come what may. A call for unity immediately followed by a threat – hardly in the spirit of seeking out common ground.
Trump is not to blame; the forum is. Few people, even those who fancy themselves as seasoned political observers, remember the ringing phrases of State of the Union speeches. Inauguration Day speeches sometimes stick, John F. Kennedy’s “we will bear and burden, pay and price ….” declaration being one case in point, FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” another.
George Orwell, as usual, got it right in a famous sentence: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Trump’s appeal for unity was just that: ‘pure wind’.
Was it, in the end, a great speech, an awful one, or just run-of –the mill. Somewhere between the latter two, I would say, and having nothing new or remarkable in it, is hardly worthy of any attempt at profound analysis. Trump wants his wall and is determined to get it. He will punish China for doing in international trade pretty much the kind of thing he himself is advocating. He will die with the Christian fundamentalists on the abortion issue. And so on, and so forth.
The State of the Union is ‘strong’, he announced in his opening remark. Many would disagree, on both sides of the aisle, for all the time-honoured, but time-wasting displays of enthusiasm from the floor.