This was supposed to be the night that America’s “daddy party” – Republicans who used to win elections on their Old Testament-style discipline toward criminals or foreign adversaries – suddenly became the “grounded teenager party.”
With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her blunt instrument of a gavel looming just a few feet behind him, America was told that Trump – supposedly chastened by his car wreck of a government shutdown last month – would be on his best behavior for Tuesday’s State of the Union address, saying all the right things about national unity and bipartisanship.
He couldn’t make it past the first 25 minutes.
First the seething president met privately with TV news anchors and called former vice president and possible 2020 rival Joe Biden “dumb” and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “a nasty son of a bitch.” As darkness descended on Capitol Hill, White House beat reporters said that America’s divider-in-chief was chafing at the earlier speech drafts pledging national conciliation and that he was huddling with his xenophobic aide Stephen Miller to craft a new version that would be tougher on Democrats and undocumented immigrants.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” said Trump when he delivered the speech, brandishing the issue that closed much of the federal government for five weeks and – with this type of words – threatens to do so again in a matter of days. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
There were audible groans in the House chamber when Trump insisted that “large, organized caravans” of migrants are again headed to the United States — the same endless Fox News loop that the president used to whip up voters in the 2018 midterms — while boasting of sending more troops to the border and insisting that he will get an expanded wall built despite unanimous Democratic opposition. He again sent fact-checkers into overdrive with false claims about immigrants causing more crimes and overstating the number of murders by migrants.
Trump’s delivery had been lethargic, punctuated by sniffs, before his lengthy rant on immigration, when suddenly the tension could almost be felt coming through the TV screen.
He also bashed “ridiculous partisan investigations,” a faint echo of Richard Nixon’s infamous 1974 declaration that “one year of Watergate is enough.” And he called for a ban on late-term abortions — a hot-button issue certain to rile up both Trump’s supporters in his Christian fundamentalist base as well as the heavily female “resistance” that largely supports reproductive rights. And he insisted “America will never be a socialist country” — setting up a likely theme of a 2020 reelection campaign.
Just 24 hours earlier, the president had been meeting privately with supporters and instead teasing blandly conciliatory lines like this: “Together, we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future." But when he reached the House lectern, Trump failed to make any special gesture of warmth toward the return of Pelosi — a marked contrast from President George W. Bush’s shout-out when she had become the first female House speaker in 2007.
It was a last-minute sharp-right turn for an event that was expected to have the air of an unreality show – an 82-minute comity skit where a one-time SNL guest-host at least tries to play the part of a normal president with a normal-president theme of “CHOOSING GREATNESS” and feigning interest in normal-president policies like rebuilding America’s sagging infrastructure or lowering prescription-drug prices.
A more contentious than expected tone was arguably more appropriate for our national moment than the first draft – especially when everyone knows that the state of the federal government under Trump’s quadruple-bankruptcy brand of management is a joke. Sorry, I apologize for that. It’s actually not funny when the federal prison bureau just kept 1,600 shivering Brooklyn inmates in freezing pitch-blackness for a week or when the government doesn’t even know exactly how many refugee kids it ripped away from their parents or it’s about to bulldoze the National Butterfly Center for a border wall virtually no one is asking for.
No wonder the House chamber Tuesday night looked less like a speech venue and more like an intervention, with Trump walking in to find himself surrounded and confronted by the people he’s hurt during his tweet-addled addiction to political destruction – transgender soldiers, undocumented immigrants including a former Trump resort housekeeper, recently furloughed federal workers, victims of California’s climate-change-fueled wildfires. All were invited guests of congressional Democrats — their female members a sea of suffragette white — who can now hold Trump in check.