A Speech That Smashed Political Orthodoxy
President Trump’s State of the Union address before Congress Tuesday night demonstrated that he isn’t finished shaking up Washington politics. The president blasted through the partisan fault lines of the recent past to present a vision of America that was neither Democratic nor Republican. It consisted of a novel mix of plans, attitudes, and impulses pulled from both parties.
In tone the speech was remarkably conciliatory, largely devoid of the political pugnacity for which Trump is famous. He did indulge in the kind of hyperbole that also is a Trump hallmark, declaring that “a new tide of optimism was already sweeping our land” within weeks of his inauguration and touting the “incredible progress” and “extraordinary success” of his administration. But generally he reached for—and largely achieved—a statesmanlike pose.
Trump projected a strong sense of American idealism and unabashedly invoked hearty sentiments of patriotism. Such sentiments, he said pointedly, are “why we salute our flag, why we place our hands on our hearts at the Pledge of Allegiance, and why we stand for the national anthem.” The latter point was a dig, but a light-handed one, at NFL football players who kneeled during “The Star Spangled Banner” before football games in protest of what they considered racial injustice.
The president also projected his well-known populist sentiments, but with a light touch. He issued a testament to the founders and builders of America without reference to those who wish today to tear down monuments to their heritage because of modern-day liberal sensibilities. In touting the wisdom and values of the American people, he refrained from any negative reference to the nation’s elites. But he drew the distinction subtly when he called the Capitol building, where he stood, a monument to the nation’s people. He added, “This capitol, this city, and this nation belong entirely to them.”
But it was in his mix of initiatives that Trump demonstrated his ongoing iconoclastic approach to politics. Consider his approach to immigration, which he had revealed last week and on which he elaborated in the State of Union speech. The president has transformed the debate on this issue, and the Washington establishment has been unable to get it back to the status quo ante.
Before Trump, Washington was locked in a standoff between those who wanted to provide some form of amnesty for some 11 million illegal immigrants and those who wanted to enhance border security. The problem for border-security advocates was that they didn’t trust the political establishment to deliver following any compromise that included a path to legalization for the current illegals. They had good reason for their skepticism: the 1986 legislation that granted amnesty while doing nothing about the burgeoning influx of illegals. Also missing from that standoff were the problems with our current legal-immigration policies.
Trump changed all that with his call for ending so-called chain migration, which allows immigrants to sponsor green-card residence for extended family members, and the “lottery” that brings into America 50,000 people annually from “underrepresented” nations. He also wants tighter border security, including his wall. In exchange, as he explained in his speech, he proposed a path to citizenship for some 1.8 million illegal residents who were brought to America as children, who had no hand in the illegality of their entry, and who know no other country of residence.
Trump touted his approach as a “down-the-middle compromise” in which “no one gets all they want.” No doubt he himself won’t get all he wishes from his proposal. Many Democrats are aghast, while hardline Republicans are on the verge of rebellion. But this is a new debate that will play out not just in Washington but around the country. And a broken system of legal immigration going back to 1965 is now on the table for the first time.
Beyond that, while Trump’s address contained plenty of basic Republican proposals and boasts—his conservative judicial nominations, his assault on federal regulations, his tax legislation, his initiatives to increase accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs, his efforts to reverse the country’s industrial decline—he also smashed a number of GOP icons.
He made clear, for example, that he has no intention of retreating from his ongoing assault on the Republican shibboleth of free trade, which he views as harmful to American business and prosperity. “The era of economic surrender is totally over,” he declared, and said he wants a trade regimen that is “fair and reciprocal.”
He called for new infrastructure initiatives worth $1.5 trillion, with the federal government seeking partnerships with state and local governments and with the private sector. While such a need is embraced by many, including Republicans, this would entail huge federal expenditures at a time of large budget deficits and increasing federal debt. Indeed, Trump seemed unconcerned about increasing federal interventionism. He called for government programs to promote workplace development and job training, to foster trade/vocation schools, to mandate paid family leave, and to fight the opioid drug epidemic. He also called for prison reform so inmates can get “a second chance at life.”
Trump advocated further federal intervention to reduce the price of prescription drugs, an initiative he called “one of my highest priorities for the year.” He added, “And prices will come down substantially—watch.” Trump didn’t address just how he will do this while observing traditional Republican free-market principles, however.
Beyond that, Trump made no mention of any imperative to address ongoing deficit spending or the nation’s $20 trillion national debt. He ignored the problem of burgeoning federal spending tied to out-of-control entitlement programs. In short, he evinced no inclination to return the Republican Party to its traditional support for fiscal discipline, a precept that took a major hit during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Perhaps the most intriguing—some might say most disturbing—element of Trump’s speech was his passage on American foreign policy. He said nothing throughout the address that squared with his campaign rhetoric decrying America’s promiscuous foreign policy adventurism of the past quarter century. During the campaign he decried America’s Iraq invasion, its ongoing war in Afghanistan, its involvement in the overthrow and killing of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, its efforts to foster regime change in Syria, and its aggressive machinations against Russia. He seems now to have forgotten all of that.
Instead, he called for an aggressive foreign policy aimed at rogue regimes, terrorist organizations, and the nations he identified as America’s central rivals, China and Russia. He bragged about implementing more liberal rules of engagement for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, signaling that he harbors little intention of ending that war anytime soon. And he continued his verbal assault on Iran, asking Congress to undermine America’s commitment to the nuclear deal negotiated with that country by six major powers in 2015. For good measure he added that America was not very pleased with the regimes of Cuba and Venezuela.
As for ongoing tensions with North Korea, clearly the most fearsome challenge facing America at this time, he vowed to apply “maximum pressure” based on “total American resolve.” But he didn’t provide any concrete ideas on how events might unfold to lessen the tensions brewing over North Korea’s headlong rush toward developing nuclear weapons that can be delivered to the American homeland.
All in all, it was an impressive speech, probably the most impressive of his presidency. But it wasn’t a speech of political orthodoxy. It was rather a pastiche of boasts and proposals that didn’t add up to any kind of philosophical coherence. Whether these disparate attitudes and measures can produce a governing coalition remains an open question.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, was released in September.