Donald Trump, the unity president — doesn’t sound right, does it? Trump is, we know, divisive. Under his administration, America is polarised to the point of madness. Democrats and Republicans despise each other, culture wars rage, sane people speculate about another civil war.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, however, Trump spoke about bringing his country together. He will never be an elegant orator, but ‘SOTU 19’ was objectively a good speech: its authors cleverly wove American themes of optimism and success into a political challenge to the Democrats. ‘Millions of our fellow citizens are watching us,’ he said, ‘hoping we will govern not as two parties, but as one nation.’ You could call it One Nation Trumpism.
Trump tried to sound magnanimous. He was positive, patriotic, less braggadocious. ‘The state of our union is strong,’ he said. ‘That sounds so good.’
What he did most effectively was put the Democrats on the defensive. House speaker Nancy Pelosi and her legion of new congresswomen chose to wear ‘suffragette white’, an ostentatious statement against Trump’s attempt to, as they put it, ‘roll back women’s progress’. They looked striking, but Trump toyed cleverly with their determination not to applaud. Would they clap when the President announced the return of 600,000 manufacturing jobs to US soil? Nah. What about the lowest historical unemployment rate for African-Americans? Nope. Disabled people having more jobs than ever? Not much.
After Trump declared that America now has more women in the workforce, the Democrats all knew they must stand for the sisterhood. ‘You weren’t supposed
to do that,’ Trump said, not without charm. He added: ‘Don’t sit yet. You are going to like this — we also have more women serving in Congress than any time before.’ The whole house erupted in applause for the new girls, who couldn’t help but congratulate themselves.
It’s all theatrics. The State of the Union is — like many American shows — marvellous, sentimental, quickly forgotten. Reagan is to blame for making it cheesy. Presidents now spend much of the speech addressing the ‘everyday heroes’ they have invited to sit in the gallery. These heroes then have to stand while the big chief says how much America honours them. This goes on far too long — Trump’s speech this year ranks as the second longest of all time. It is also cringe-inducing, but that suits Trump. Imagine the Pride of Britain awards being presented in the House of Commons by Piers Morgan, if he were king.
There has been much social media chuckling about Melania Trump’s decision to invite Joshua Trump to attend. He is an 11-year-old boy who has been bullied at school because he shares a surname with the First Family. Mercifully, Trump did not humiliate Joshua even more by telling America how he was tormented, and the boy fell asleep during the speech.
Trump did call upon Grace Eline, a ten-year-old cancer survivor who sat next to Melania. Again, the Democrats felt compelled to join in the ovation, and they had to applaud again moments later when Trump announced ‘paid family leave — so that every new parent has the chance to bond with their newborn child’.
But then he turned sharply on to abortion, which has been in the American news lately. ‘There could be no greater contrast to the beautiful image of a mother holding her infant child than the chilling displays our nation saw in recent days,’ he said. ‘Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth. These are living, feeling, beautiful babies who will never get the chance to share their love and dreams with the world.’ This might sound mawkish to those who don’t think abortion is a big deal. But it exposed the pro-abortion fanaticism that now grips the Democratic party. The women in white looked livid.
Trump is indeed divisive, and his skill at splitting his opposition is one of the reasons he is a formidable politician. When he said that ‘tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country’, he skewered the Democrats. Pelosi, standing behind him, realised that she had to clap, but did so reluctantly. The left-wing radicals who increasingly dominate her party were not amused.
On immigration, Trump tried to spell out his thinking for his opponents: ‘No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration.’ His obsession with building a wall strikes many as insanity. But in his speech on Tuesday, he made perhaps his strongest argument yet for a border barrier, and leavened it by stressing his enthusiasm for legal immigration. ‘I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever,’ he said, a remark that alarmed his more hardcore fans. ‘But they have to come in legally.’ Is that so unreasonable?
Trump also tried to manage his Rex complex. He didn’t always succeed: ‘If I had not been elected President of the United States,’ he claimed, ‘we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed.’ But he generally credited America’s greatness to America, and not just Donald Trump. He was also able to point to many impressive statistics about the economic boom under his leadership. No matter how hard they tried, the eager media fact-checkers were unable fully to debunk his figures.
If his second State of the Union was, as his enemies allege, more his first 2020 campaign speech, it was a powerful one. Trump has begun articulating an upbeat vision for America, while Democrats talk only of the misery he causes. He keeps inviting the opposition to work with him, but they just want to destroy him.
President Obama had the same problem, and he made that work to his electoral advantage. Congress has a much lower approval rating than the President. By posing as a leader who wants to heal America’s wounds (try not to laugh), Trump might find a way to increase his popularity. One Nation Trumpism could be hard to beat.
Freddy Gray is the editor of Spectator USA and the presenter of the Americano podcast. This piece appears in this week's Spectator, out tomorrow