The only time Trump got specific last night was when he demonized immigrants. How revealing.
Last night the president of the United States tried to strike a new tone, one that despite occasional moments of unity and humor, likely convinced no one who wasn't already wearing a red hat. The threadbare policy vision advanced in his speech was as absurd as any of his daily, febrile Twitter hallucinations, even if more seriously stated. And while President Trump's speechwriters managed to steer him away from his rally-standard free association act, the address' absence of even cursory policy signals how little he cares about solving the country's many pressing problems.
From the moment someone unloaded a bottomless trunk full of elderly white men, i.e. Trump's Cabinet, onto the House floor to the address' merciful denouement 84 minutes later, the president failed to change the narrative of his presidency or to advance a plausible policy vision for the next year. If you are part of the 41 percent of Americans who enjoyed the president's first two years in office, you almost certainly took pleasure in last night's proceedings. The event was at times cleverly stage-managed, particularly in its focus on the quickly disappearing Greatest Generation heroes. The expected procession of human props and callouts was, particularly by the standards of this administration, impressive in its execution and in the scope of its emotional appeal. The sniffing was kept to a minimum.
But President Trump's closing encomium to the past glory of America could not hide the emptiness of his vision for our politics today. "We do the incredible. We defy the impossible," the president said with a flourish toward the end. But he didn't point to any incredible or impossibility-defying proposals for today's America.
Instead President Trump leaned heavily into his fearmongering about immigrants and his longed-for border wall, as he spent a substantial portion of his speech — a full 20 percent of the word count — spewing hate and lies and pitifully begging for Congress to meet his demands. Despite rumors that this would be a unifying moment, he banged on again about duct-taped women and MS-13 and various malcontents and "illegal aliens" making their way across our border to murder people, steal jobs, and wreak havoc on middle America.
"Year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens," he said, confirming how desensitized we have become to the president's sick fixation on people who are killed by immigrants, to the exclusion of basically all other manifestations of violence. That this ugliness, including the exploitation of grieving crime victims, was wrapped in perfunctory concern about human trafficking should not fool anyone. Not a word, of course, about Americans killed or menaced by white supremacists. Not a word about gun violence. It's always immigrants. For Trump, it was only ever immigrants.
Every other issue was dealt with quickly. It was only here where Trump lingered on his one true policy goal, as if wishing away his years-long failure to achieve anything of substance. For months, the president's larger agenda (whatever exactly that is) has been held hostage to his BUILD A WALL AND CRIME WILL FALL monomania. Not only did he let his border wall obsession step on his one truly bipartisan achievement as president — the recent, rather modest criminal justice reform bill — but he's allowed it to swallow the opening months of the new Congress whole.
His disastrous decision to shut down the government for 35 days in a desperate attempt to extort Democrats on wall funding blew back on him like mustard gas when the American people turned against him and exposed his deep political weakness. "I will get it built," he intoned laughably last night. Even someone as delusional as Trump must know he's not getting this wall through Congress and any emergency declaration will be immediately enjoined in court.
After last night it is less clear than ever what the president does want to accomplish. The State of the Union is not necessarily the place for bullet-pointed policy proposals, but there was no sign that the president has thought more carefully about what a gigantic infrastructure bill or a prescription drug reform would look like, or how either law would make its way through Congress. He called America's infrastructure "crumbling" but didn't spend even a moment outlining his vision for how to address this crisis. Public investment? Public-private partnerships? Forget the much-lampooned Infrastructure Week — last night he couldn't even muster an Infrastructure Minute, unless his see-through border wall counts. As with any problem except immigration, he speaks in broad, inscrutable strokes because he has no real interest in stewarding any solution through the policy process, no grasp of the basics, let alone the intricacies, and not a shred of talent for building the kinds of coalitions needed to pass legislation.
Here and there he power-walked through a litany of things he obviously doesn't care about very much — family leave, cancer, abortion, space travel, foreign policy, women's representation. The issues blew by because the president has no tangible ideas about how to address them and is incapable of faking it. Does a single person on the face of the Earth think President Trump will use the bully pulpit to get paid family leave passed any time soon? Unveiling a plan would force him to pursue it, and anyway Mitch McConnell would sooner elevate Merrick Garland to chief justice of the Supreme Court than lift a finger to help working people in this country. Trump didn't seem to have the energy to get through his scripted attack on Iran, a place where he noted incisively that people are doing "bad, bad things," or to share his vision of what fairer trade with China would look like.
As rumored, the president made his somber appeal to put aside partisan divisions and move forward with compromise and public spirit. "I ask the men and women of this Congress, look at the opportunities before us," he intoned. If you were meeting this man for the first time last night, emerging perhaps from a convenient (and glorious!) three-year-long coma, perhaps you might have found some of it convincing. But to believe that President Trump will now turn himself into some kind of consensus builder is preposterous. Earlier yesterday, he peremptorily lit into Chuck Schumer on Twitter, freebased some kind of lunacy about building a "human wall" across the southern border and posted a picture of a Drudge Report headline trumpeting another absurd Rasmussen poll about his approval rating. Did he get body-snatched on his way to the House?
I think not. The truth is that none of this spectacle matters. President Trump did no damage to himself last night, but neither did he change the trajectory of our politics or his administration. The president did not wake up this morning determined to get serious about lawmaking. He is the same guy he was yesterday, as likely to help us "rekindle the bonds of love and loyalty and memory that link us together" as he is to write a book of poetry. And by the time this article is published he'll almost certainly have incinerated any lingering good feelings with some fresh and pointless outrage.