Friday, February 2, 2018

Trump's State of the Union: A tale of two GOPs


IT WAS A juxtaposition whose irony was cruel, unusual and inescapable: Hours before President* Donald Trump made nice across the aisle at the 2018 State of the Union address, proposing to govern in a new spirit of bipartisanship and commonality, a Republican senator called for the arrest of any DREAMers who dared to attend ... the State of the Union address.

Politico reported that, before the SOTU speech, Paul Gosar, Republican congressman from Arizona, tweeted that “Of all the places where the Rule of Law needs to be enforced, it should be in the hallowed halls of Congress. Any illegal aliens attempting to go through security, under any pretext of invitation or otherwise, should be arrested and deported."

When Gosar acted as an apprentice to the tweeter-in-chief, he was setting the stage for a State of the Union address that had more news in it than usual. Some of that was the address itself; more of what made it news will have to do with whether it marks a turning point for a reliably mercurial chief executive, or merely sets a pattern of behavior in stone. There’s a lot to suggest the status quo will have the upper hand.

Or not. The true character of today’s Republican party, and the party of the inescapable future, is caught up in navigating that existential dilemma: Which is the real GOP? Which one will Donald Trump serve? And which one will serve Donald Trump?

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He began with the fat, uplifting topic sentences: “Less than 1 year has passed since I first stood at this podium, in this majestic chamber, to speak on behalf of the American People — and to address their concerns, their hopes, and their dreams. That night, our new Administration had already taken swift action. A new tide of optimism was already sweeping across our land.

“Each day since, we have gone forward with a clear vision and a righteous mission — to make America great again for all Americans.

Much of the speech’s early going was not an overarching vision of the country’s direction, but was punctuated by Trump name-checking people in the gallery, picking them out for truly deserved recognition for their roles in various major events: the volunteers of the “Cajun Navy,” who rescued scores during Hurricane Harvey. A Coast Guard officer who performed admirably during the same Gulf storm, saving dozens of people.

A firefighter who braved one of the recent California wildfires to rescue some 60 people. A married couple running a small business in Ohio. One of that business’ more stellar workers. An Army staff sergeant who valiantly worked to save the life of a fellow soldier in Raqqa. Those who helped shield victims of gunfire from country music fans on the Las Vegas Strip. And a shoutout to Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalice, the congressman gravely wounded in June 2017 by a shooter at a baseball field in Alexandria, Va.

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It was a cherry-picking of the national mosaic that led to Trump’s calls for unity: “Tonight, I call upon 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. ...

“This is our new American moment. There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream.

“So to every citizen watching at home tonight — no matter where you have been, or where you come from, this is your time. If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything. ...

“[T]onight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed.”

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HIS SPEECH sounded as close to full-on presidential as anything he’s said in the last year and ten days in office. While a lot of it wasn’t Trump so much as the stagecraft, the affect, the trappings that made Trump look presidential almost by default, he talked a good game, hit all the anodyne, ameliorative notes we’ve come to expect from any modern president delivering a SOTU in prime-time.

A State of the Union address, properly delivered, isn’t just a laundry list of objectives or an honor’s list of accomplishments. The best SOTU speeches are acts of smart rhetorical weaving, combining the factual, the granular and the unabashedly aspirational, statements of where we’ve been joined with those containing some bigger, broader objective sense of where we hope to go as a nation.

                       State of the Union 2018: The transcript   |   The speech

Trump accomplished much of this, performing, in some ways, better than this observer thought he would or could. But the man can’t help himself. Trump wasn’t above taking shots here and there, at adversaries real and imagined: North Korea, terrorists, immigrants ... his usual targets of opportunity.

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He of course mentioned the economy’s 2.4 million new jobs, a figure that, whether Trump thinks so or not, has a lot to do with programs and policies created and executed in the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump mentioned increasing new highs on the stock market, again, a manifestation of momentum from the Obama years. There’s no denying the advances the market’s made in the past year; there’s also no denying the origins of that financial velocity, a product of the past eight years. On that basis, Obama could have taken as many as bows as Trump just did.

The reach-for-the-stars Trump was in constant contrast with Trump the mud wrestler. The Daily Beast picked up on some of these sudden lane changes: “After outlining the dignity of the American worker, Trump subtly pitted them against undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. ‘Because Americans are dreamers too,’ he said.

“Following praise for Preston Sharp, a young boy who started a movement to put flags on the graves of fallen soldiers, Trump slipped in a dig at athletes who chose to kneel last year during the national anthem in protest for civil rights.”

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THE NEW Kum Ba Yah mode of Trumpism may not fly with the people the GOP needs to form the basis, the foundation of the next conservative base. On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump’s storied antagonism with “liberals” and “the establishment” — which are whatever he decides them to be in any particular situation — endeared him to a rock-ribbed core of conservative voters who would gladly die on his hill. As long as the enemy never changes.

Trump’s rhetorical reaches across the aisle on Jan. 30th may be so much political theater. But to the extent that he believed the message he gave to the 45.6 million Americans watching him live, his base voters may take some exception with his making any gestures to “the enemy.”

That’s no big deal. The base won’t abandon Trump; the true believers aren’t going anywhere. But the country’s changing, fast, and the Republican party — older, whiter, more settled, more resistant to change — isn’t changing nearly fast enough. If there’s any hope of opening the Republican party’s tent to other Americans, of expanding its share of the persuadable electorate, much depends on how, and how well, Trump executes on his own new vision of bipartisanship.

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Assuming, of course, that he believes it. The biggest problem with making this New Trump Moment more than conjecture has to do with Trump himself, and the high likelihood that Trump didn’t really mean it.

To go by the relative swiftness of this conversion — Trump the combatant morphs into Trump the peacemaker before our eyes — he got down this road to Damascus in a hurry, in a motorcade, lights and sirens going. Real political transformations are never so immediate; they take more time (and fewer reflexive tweets). Trump’s rapid evolution seeks a benefit of the doubt it hasn’t earned.

To follow through on this will call on Donald Trump — legendarily unyielding negotiator, counseled for years by hardball master Roy Cohn — to be something he is apparently not: conciliatory. It will summon from Trump a charity of mindset, a tolerance of differences, an openness to contrary thinking that we — decades into our perception of him — have every right to believe he is not capable of.

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BUT WE’LL see. Maybe there’s conciliation where we least expect it. Most of the physical theater of Donald Trump at the State of the Union — his gestures, his handclaps, his nods and toothless smiles — were directed at those sitting to his left. Watch the whole thing, you’ll see.

Was it the luck of the seating chart? Or was it political semiotics, a kind of signaling to the folks on the political left?

Yeah, I know, that’s a real stretch. Trump’s not that on-the-nose clever. But whatever outreach Trump attempted has to be weighed against the actions of others presuming to act on his behalf.

Trump needs to tell the congressman from Arizona: “Get with the program. There’s new music in the hymnal.” Even if it isn’t new at all.

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