Daniel R. DePetris

Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech changes nothing

Donald Trump's State of the Union speech changes nothing
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Donald Trump takes no punches. He prides himself on being a counter-puncher, a person who won’t think twice about hitting an opponent in the teeth. It only took a few days for those who hoped the Oval Office and the nuclear button would smooth the edges of his boisterousness, combativeness, and unbounded egotism to learn that Trump wasn’t going to change his personality for the sake of high-powered, politically correct Washingtonians.  

Halfway through his first term, however, Trump has learned the hard way how tough it is to enact a legislative agenda when you get on everyone’s bad side. Back in New York, when Trump was the dictator of his real estate empire, he could issue a directive on a whim and know that the underlings below his 26th floor office would execute it — no questions asked. If there were questions asked, the person doing the questioning would be abraded in public or fired. Needless to say, Washington, D.C. doesn’t work the same way. If the president’s party isn’t fortunate enough to have supermajorities in Congress, the person behind the Resolute Desk will have to forge personal relationships with the other side in an attempt to get substantive things done for the American people.

Trump oozes divisiveness and controversy. Democrats look at the orange-faced New Yorker and see a narcissistic maniac with authoritarian tendencies who insults judges, demonises immigrants, incites against the media, and is more interested in giving his critics childish nicknames than participating in staff meetings. When Trump walked up to podium to deliver his State of the Union address last night, he understood that the power dynamics in Washington evolved from what they were only a few months ago. Now, some of the same politicians in the opposing party who lambast him on a daily basis as unhinged, unintelligent, or dictatorial have control of the House of Representatives and the ability to frustrate the next (and perhaps final) two years of his presidency.  

The president decided to lace his speech with a theme of unity, comity, American exceptionalism, and potential. And when he wasn’t talking about immigration or the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump actually sounded like a standard politician. American politics, Trump read from the teleprompter, has become far too heated. Both parties need to “reject the politics of revenge” and embrace cooperation, compromise, and good-faith for the benefit of one nation. “We must choose between vision and vengeance,” Trump remarked. The American people can once again trust their politicians to make their lives better if only the politicians themselves could overcome the ideological divisions and leave partisanship to the dogs.  

To any other president, pleas for country over party wouldn’t bat an eyelash. But coming from Trump’s mouth, those very same words almost seem strange and foreign. It as if Trump had an out-of-body experience as he was in reading his address and finally comprehended that battling everyone in Washington is a bad way of doing business.

One shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that Donald Trump is now Mr. Nice Guy. The Trump on display last night was not the real Trump. The real Trump was the person who, hours before delivering his address to the nation, commiserated with television anchors at the White House and unleashed an assault on his political enemies. Former Vice President and prospective 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was “dumb;” Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, was “a nasty son of a bitch;” Sen. Elizabeth Warren was “Pocahontas;” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was a two-faced snake who says nice things in private but horrible things to the television cameras; and the late Republican Sen. John McCain was an atrocious author who couldn’t give his book away. The genuine Donald Trump was at the behind-closed-doors meeting, taking no prisoners. The fake Donald Trump was at the House chamber last night, preaching love, peace, and tranquility.  

At the end of this annual Washington spectacle, nothing will change. Democrats in Congress will see right through the veneer of kindness Trump exhibited last night and be as ready to battle the White House as they were before the speech was delivered. Trump will brood in the Oval Office and tweet about how terrible the Democrats are and how people like Pelosi, Schumer, and 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris would rather gangs of illegal immigrants ransacked America’s cities than provide money for his southern border wall. The partisan war will not only continue, but get uglier as the 2020 election season approaches and Washington prepares for the conclusion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Republicans will run to the right, Democrats will run to the left, and independents will get left behind. And the American people, who are already disgusted by politics in general, will be even more so in the weeks, months, and years to come.

The State of the Union is like an awards ceremony in Hollywood. Once the winners are celebrated, the party flames out and everyone wakes up the next morning with a hangover. Except in Washington, the hangover will effect the entire nation. Once the sun rises, nobody will remember the party even happened.