Trump’s State of the Union.

Pomp and pageantry sur­round the State of the Union ad­dresses and great im­por­tance is be­stowed upon them. But did Pres­i­dent Trump’s amount to any­thing more than a sideshow?

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Martin McKen­zie-Mur­ray

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump didn’t reprise the phrase, but “Amer­i­can car­nage” was one theme of this week’s State of the Union ad­dress – even if the speech was leav­ened with more op­ti­mism than his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress. Fear was ev­ery­where. Of rogue states, nu­clear weapons, ter­ror­ism, gangs and waves of im­mi­gra­tion. This last point – which Trump per­son­alised by hav­ing in at­ten­dance the fam­ily of a teenage girl, mur­dered by an un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant – was a sig­nif­i­cant el­e­ment of the speech.

Trump im­plored Congress to ac­cept his im­mi­gra­tion re­forms. They would, he said, make el­i­gi­bil­ity for ci­ti­zen­ship more strin­gent, in­crease fund­ing for bor­der forces and cur­tail “chain im­mi­gra­tion” – oth­er­wise known as fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion. This part is es­pe­cially wor­ri­some.

From the Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence, we know that mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism’s suc­cess is largely de­pen­dent on fam­ily set­tle­ment. Trump seems to view im­mi­grants not as prospec­tive cit­i­zens but as mere units of labour. If he is con­cerned about so­cial frag­men­ta­tion – and else­where in the speech he stressed the sanc­tity of the “nu­clear fam­ily” – splin­ter­ing fam­i­lies is a per­verse way of ad­dress­ing it.

De­spite the gloom, Trump said op­ti­mism could be found in the econ­omy, which, by most mark­ers, is healthy. “Since the elec­tion, we have cre­ated 2.4 mil­lion new jobs,” he said, “in­clud­ing 200,000 new jobs in man­u­fac­tur­ing alone. Af­ter years of wage stag­na­tion, we are fi­nally see­ing ris­ing wages.”

This is true, but con­text mat­ters.

It is un­usual to date jobs growth from the elec­tion – the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was ef­fec­tive un­til Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, more than two months later. Since then, 2.1 mil­lion jobs have been added to the United States econ­omy. It’s healthy, and Trump is right to cel­e­brate it. But it is also a con­tin­u­a­tion of a trend. In the fi­nal three years of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, three mil­lion, 2.7 mil­lion and 2.2 mil­lion jobs were cre­ated, re­spec­tively. Trump in­her­ited an im­prov­ing econ­omy.

Sim­i­larly, when Trump boasted of at­tract­ing a $US350 bil­lion in­vest­ment from Ap­ple – largely man­i­fest in the de­vel­op­ment of new plants – it was a con­tin­u­a­tion of a trend. Of the $US350 bil­lion, about 10 per cent was new in­vest­ment.

Last year was a year of pre­cious few leg­isla­tive achieve­ments for the pres­i­dent, which ac­counts for the time Trump de­voted to tax cuts. To be sure, the bill is sig­nif­i­cant, but it’s very far from the “great­est tax cut in Amer­ica’s his­tory”, as Trump is fond of say­ing. Equally mis­lead­ing was Trump’s dec­la­ra­tion that the “war” on “clean, beau­ti­ful coal” had ended. Trump was im­ply­ing that oner­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions were dam­ag­ing the coal in­dus­try and, by ex­ten­sion, the Amer­i­can econ­omy.

Yet coal’s great­est en­emy – to con­tinue Trump’s war anal­ogy – is not reg­u­la­tion but the abun­dance of nat­u­ral gas cour­tesy of frack­ing tech­nol­ogy.

As is oblig­a­tory with these speeches, there were in the cham­ber cit­i­zens who had dis­tin­guished them­selves with bold acts of char­ity or courage. There was a po­lice of­fi­cer and his wife who had adopted the ne­glected child of a drug ad­dict. A spe­cial agent of the US Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, who had de­fied death threats and locked up gang mem­bers. A war vet­eran who, af­ter be­ing blinded and maimed, re-en­listed with the Ma­rine Corps. And a US Coast Guard mem­ber who had res­cued dozens of peo­ple from Hous­ton’s great flood. I’m not so cyn­i­cal as to be un­touched by the trib­utes, but I am sen­si­tive to the in­jus­tice of a draft-dodg­ing mis­cre­ant pop­u­larly anoint­ing these he­roes.

Touch­ing also were the griefcrum­pled faces of the par­ents of Otto Warm­bier, the Amer­i­can stu­dent ar­rested and likely tor­tured by the North Korean regime. His co­matose body was re­turned to the US be­fore his death. Otto’s par­ents, the pres­i­dent said, could pow­er­fully tes­tify to the unique evil of North Korea. As could Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean de­fec­tor who, hav­ing lost a leg and a fa­ther, es­caped the coun­try on the crutches he tri­umphantly lifted this week in the US Capi­tol Build­ing.

Ide­ally, the State of the Union wouldn’t ex­ist. In its pageantry and regal def­er­ence, it re­sem­bles the monar­chy the US vi­o­lently re­jected in its own found­ing. There is the cab­i­net’s pro­ces­sion through the cham­ber, ob­se­quiously her­alded by mem­bers of Congress and their guests. The the­atri­cal syco­phancy is bet­tered only by the ar­rival of the pres­i­dent, icon­i­cally an­nounced by the sergean­tat-arms. Then there is the pres­ence of the First Lady, an aloof and un­elected fig­ure, but one whose prox­im­ity con­fers im­por­tance upon a guest.

While the king spoke, and the queen’s “box” served as an aquar­ium for the coun­try’s soul, at least half the cham­ber was wor­ship­ful. In faith­fully ob­serv­ing the ap­plause lines, the Repub­li­can au­di­ence re­sem­bled a yo-yo. Equally bad was the hol­low solem­nity from re­porters, which be­gan days ear­lier. None of this is unique to Trump. It’s true of all State of the Unions. Some 235 years on, we can say that Amer­ica’s War of In­de­pen­dence did not quell its royal en­thu­si­asm.

These regal pre­ten­sions ap­palled Thomas Jef­fer­son, who in 1801 re­spect­fully de­clined to ad­dress Congress and in­stead sup­plied a writ­ten brief. Jef­fer­son was within his rights: the US Con­sti­tu­tion only vaguely com­pels a pres­i­dent “from time to time give to the Congress in­for­ma­tion of the state of the union, and rec­om­mend to their con­sid­er­a­tion such mea­sures as he shall judge nec­es­sary and ex­pe­di­ent” and nowhere stip­u­lates it must be spo­ken. Jef­fer­son’s ex­am­ple was sus­tained for more than a cen­tury un­til Woodrow Wil­son be­came pres­i­dent.

De­spite the her­aldry, the speeches can still mat­ter. George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union ad­dress, given just months af­ter the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks, was used to pre­pare Amer­i­cans for the Iraq War by in­clud­ing the Mid­dle Eastern na­tion as one of three con­sti­tut­ing an “axis of evil”. Bush’s ap­proval rat­ings at the time were 84 per cent – com­pared with Trump’s 39 per cent this week – and his im­pe­rial cer­ti­tude com­forted his shaken coun­try, but it did so in­versely to the com­fort of his al­lies. Bush’s sec­re­tary of state, Con­doleezza Rice, would later write in her me­moirs that the phrase “helped brand the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion as rad­i­cal and bel­li­cose”.

Richard Nixon closed his 1974 State of the Union ad­dress by ap­peal­ing for the end of in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the Water­gate abuses, which in­cluded his own florid crim­i­nal­ity. It didn’t help, and just months later he re­signed in dis­grace – never jailed, but im­pris­oned by his own per­son­al­ity.

Nixon’s sickly prece­dent bears un­com­fort­able com­par­isons with Pres­i­dent Trump. In the hours be­fore his State of the Union ad­dress, a Se­nate com­mit­tee au­tho­rised the pub­li­ca­tion of a con­fi­den­tial memo re­gard­ing al­leged abuses of

FBI agents in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Trump pres­i­den­tial cam­paign for links to Rus­sia. Its re­lease would ul­ti­mately be de­ter­mined by Trump, who was ea­ger to do so.

Fol­low­ing the State of the Union, FBI di­rec­tor Christo­pher Wray re­leased this state­ment: “The FBI was pro­vided a lim­ited op­por­tu­nity to re­view this memo the day be­fore the com­mit­tee voted to re­lease it. As ex­pressed dur­ing our ini­tial re­view, we have grave con­cerns about ma­te­rial omis­sions of fact that fun­da­men­tally im­pact the memo’s ac­cu­racy.”

A func­tional re­pub­lic over­sees its in­sti­tu­tions and their use of power. There is a crosshatch­ing of ac­count­abil­ity. In despotic regimes, in­sti­tu­tions are ei­ther an­nexed by tyrants or dis­as­trously un­der­mined. This is where Amer­ica is creep­ing. Trump and his me­dia sur­ro­gates have con­tin­u­ally un­der­mined the FBI and re­peat­edly sug­gested a vast, il­licit con­spir­acy to un­der­mine – or over­throw – the gov­ern­ment.

To re­gard the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion as some rot­ten, par­ti­san con­spir­acy is ab­surd given what is al­ready es­tab­lished: Trump’s for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Michael Flynn, made se­cret over­tures to Rus­sia while the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was still ef­fec­tive, and lied about this to the vice-pres­i­dent. He has since pleaded guilty to ly­ing to the FBI. Trump’s el­dest son, Don­ald jnr, along with cam­paign man­ager Paul Manafort, now in­dicted, met with a Krem­lin-aligned lawyer who was of­fer­ing dirt on Hil­lary Clin­ton. Trump later helped his son con­struct a mis­lead­ing de­fence. Dur­ing the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion, Manafort had also sought to al­ter the GOP’s po­si­tion on Rus­sia. As pres­i­dent, Trump vol­un­teered clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion to the Rus­sian am­bas­sador and for­eign min­is­ter in the Oval Of­fice. He sacked the FBI di­rec­tor and, con­tra­dict­ing pre­vi­ous state­ments, told NBC he had done so be­cause “of the Rus­sia thing”. This is far from an ex­haus­tive list.

What is emerg­ing is his­toric and world-chang­ing im­pro­pri­ety, and it will ab­bre­vi­ate the tele­vised praise of the speech that Trump’s ego will have re­lied upon. It also makes silly the pop­u­lar me­dia phrase “Twit­ter Trump and Teleprompter Trump” be­cause there is only one Trump: an im­pla­ca­bly ig­no­rant and dis­hon­est man.

It is galling to read the asi­nine “anal­y­sis” of the ad­dress. Days be­fore the State of the Union, Aaron Kall in

USA To­day wrote: “Given the re­cent gov­ern­ment shut­down and the plethora of scan­dals sur­round­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, Trump’s great­est op­por­tu­nity for suc­cess lies in closely em­u­lat­ing the Bill Clin­ton ad­dresses of 1996, 1998 and 1999.” Kall sim­ply meant that, like Clin­ton, Trump should avoid any men­tion of scan­dal.

There is lit­tle that is fresh or il­lu­mi­nat­ing in the anal­y­sis of these ad­dresses. First, be­cause the speech it­self of­ten de­fies it; sec­ond, be­cause so much po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis is a re­flex­ive dis­gorge­ment of long in­her­ited for­mu­las. The pres­i­dent was or was not “states­man­like”. The pres­i­dent did or did not “ap­peal broadly”. The per­for­mance was or was not suc­cess­ful, based on very thin cri­te­ria. It is an en­tirely ar­ti­fi­cial ap­praisal, its sub­ject mea­sured by how many stan­dard de­vi­a­tions he moved from the mean.

Hap­pily, there is an abun­dance of fact-check­ing. In var­i­ous an­no­tated ver­sions of Trump’s speech, er­rors or ex­ag­ger­a­tions abound. What ef­fect this will have on the re­cep­tion of the speech is an­other mat­ter. For now, Trump has de­clared a “New Amer­i­can mo­ment” – a state­ment that, for once, is res­o­nantly

• ac­cu­rate.

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump de­liv­ers his first State of the Union ad­dress.

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Sat­ur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

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