Watching Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on 4 February, I felt that we had crossed a line. This president was setting up as the benevolent ruler of – it wasn’t clear what. Not a constitutional democracy. A different kind of country. He had brought along, as guests, individuals who were given honourable mentions in his speech, people who looked up in gratitude as he scattered his gifts. They were being treated as subjects, not citizens, but they didn’t mind. One was an African American girl in elementary school, a girl with a single mother. Trump took credit for saving her from the wretched fate of going to ‘government schools’: he awarded her an ‘opportunity scholarship’ to a charter school, right there on national television. He was improving the state of the union, person by person. Something like the ‘sovereign’s touch’.
This interlude, and several others that added half an hour to the speech, were reminiscent of two TV shows from the 1950s, Queen for a Day and This Is Your Life. An applause meter would elect as queen-for-a-day the woman who told the saddest story about her life; her prize would be a washing machine or a refrigerator. This Is Your Life was happier and brought back significant but quite unexpected people from the contestant’s earlier life (its American incarnation ceased broadcasting in 1961). ‘Your husband is back from deployment,’ Trump said, and the husband – just off the plane from Afghanistan – strode into the chamber of the House of Representatives in full uniform to greet his wife; their reunion was part of the speech. It was much the same with Trump’s bestowal of the Medal of Freedom on the talk radio host Rush Limbaugh: Melania Trump hung the medal around the broadcaster’s neck – an event within the event. There was (we were meant to feel) some sentiment and not just political dealing in the gesture. Limbaugh had recently announced that he was suffering from stage-four lung cancer.
Interspersed among the awards were Trump’s usual grisly narratives of fear: most potently (and dwelt on with obvious relish), the details of a murder by an illegal alien from south of the border. Trump mimed the proper response with a characteristic grimace. His miming is always effective: it shows obvious contempt for the bad people, a habit he fosters in his rally crowd. The Republican Party is not quite there, not yet, but it’s being softened up. In these moods, the president’s mouth most often distorts itself in a kind of puckered sneer.
The carnival element, already present, is likely to grow stronger in the coming months. Trump gave himself credit for rising wages when in fact the Republican Party has opposed a national minimum wage; absurdly, he stood out as a defender of Medicare and the health protections that came in under Obama. The Democrats were made to be synonymous with ‘government’, an ugly and unnecessary excrescence, while Trump-as-government can be trusted implicitly. He is making things bigger and better: ‘We have totally rejected the downsizing.’ You can have everything, Trump said, and you are getting it, from me. Oddly, this emphasis reproduced the very attitude that Limbaugh has always mocked bitterly when he’s talking about Democrats. (They get their votes, Limbaugh says, by ‘giving people stuff’.)
In a mischievous detail, Trump stole a shot at two favourite watchwords of the campus and corporate-liberal left: ‘We are building the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society.’ Discord, elimination and exclusion are a precondition of Trump’s community, however, and he came back to that message in varied settings throughout the speech, from the imperative of overthrowing the government of Iran to the necessity of transporting undesirable citizens. Republicans gave him standing ovations with an abandon the US Congress had previously reserved for Benjamin Netanyahu; but this time, with the exception of one moment, Democrats stayed seated. With great fanfare, Trump introduced another of his special guests, the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó. He pledged that Guaidó would soon be installed as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, thanks to the coalition of 59 countries bent on deposing Nicolás Maduro. Was a coup already in progress? At this point, Nancy Pelosi jumped to her feet and clapped. So did the Democratic Party en masse. They would support Trump in this as they had when he bombed Syria, and as, with vague demurrals, they had supported his assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Military action in the ostensible cause of democracy seems, for the United States, the one remaining bipartisan principle. In this respect, if in no other, Trump remains a conventional politician.
The speech was clearly a success in a number of intended ways. More than half the named exemplary citizens – persons asked to stand up during the speech, as objects of commiseration, honour, or both – were remarkable for being people of colour (as the Democrats take care to call them): black or Hispanic or visibly Asian citizens. Reagan innovated this format of the call-out-to-folks, and Clinton and Obama expanded it, but on 4 February Trump outdid them all. And to accompany the new faces he had some surprising statistics: employment has gone up, in the last three years, for African Americans and women. There were also generic promises and optimistic impressions that could pass for statistics: under his presidency, Trump said, wealthy people were pouring money into poor neighbourhoods, ‘creating jobs, energy and excitement’. He spoke for a programme of ‘vocational and technical education in every single high school in America’ – a good idea, actually, at which Pelosi and the Democrats declined to applaud because it was so predictably a vote-getting alternative to the Democratic idea that government should support a free four-year college education for everyone. It hasn’t struck the Democrats that not everyone wants four years of college, or that four years can’t be trusted any longer to secure the beneficiary a decent job – something a good technical education might do. Trump said once again, as he did in 2016 and 2017, ‘we must also rebuild America’s infrastructure,’ but there was a barb here too: the infrastructure would encompass high-speed internet access for all Americans, ‘including and especially in rural America’ – the land of Trump voters.
Cities, he meant, are the home of the liberal media and the hyper-educated elite, as they are also the hiding place of fugitives from the global South. He went on to attack the sanctuary cities and to ask that Congress pass his Justice for Victims of Sanctuary Cities Act. The Democrats may well vote against it, but that will be a painful and uneasy case to make. Trump is putting himself across as the leader who cares for all the lives worth caring for.
The day after the speech, the Senate acquitted President Trump of the two charges the Democratic Congress had brought against him: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Just one Republican, Mitt Romney, voted with them on the first of those charges, and he made an impressive speech explaining his decision. The truth is that the Republicans have imploded: all the outer layers and integuments collapsed into the white-hot core of Trump’s base and his rally crowd. But the Democrats are stumbling in the dark and not finding a solid footing. They went to absurd lengths in hitching their opposition to Trump to the rising pressure in the policy elite for a new cold war; and there was something deluded in the claim, made by the lead manager of the impeachment, Adam Schiff, that Ukrainians ‘are fighting our fight’ against Russia.
A larger problem for the Democrats has emerged in the event that almost coincided with Trump’s nation-with-leader speech and his acquittal. The vote count in the Iowa primary was delayed for days, owing to the party’s purchase of a defective app for tabulating the results – a contrivance poorly built by amateurs associated with Obama and Clinton operations and never tried, tested or made secure. In 2016, the Democratic National Committee was hacked, with catastrophic results in the election; ever since, the party has cried that Trump is a danger to the process of voting, and complained that he has done nothing to prevent the situation recurring in 2020. But here was the same party, showing it couldn’t run a primary above suspicion in the non-toxic state of Iowa.
The Republican script for the next election writes itself. The opposition went after Trump for Russian connections before they had sufficient evidence; they then assumed that the Mueller inquiry would come out with a clear condemnation, but in the event its findings were indeterminate; they went on to impeachment, and lost. The next thing they say against Trump, whatever it is, will look like the next in an endless series. They are the partisans. In answer, the Democrats have got to show that they represent a normal and decent pattern for the country, compared to which Trump is the aberration. Their path could hardly be less clear.