With the State of the Union, the President of the United States has the span of an hour to offer up rebuttals to the intense scrutiny that he or she has received that year. Common throughout all such speeches are updates on national achievements and milestones reached, as well as possible glimpses of upcoming policy.
For many Americans, the State of the Union is an exercise of the utmost banality as many come to expect the President to offer the usual platitudes: that the economy can resurge and that the American people are doing a fine job.
Far from being a mere display of executive pageantry, the State of the Union address is important for both the insight it provides into the national condition and a reaffirmation of the Executive Branch’s thoughts and values.
Most State of the Union addresses promise a resurgence of America; that, in spite of the hard times, America will rise again. This is not exclusive to Trump’s address, as Obama made similar exaltations of perseverance in his first inaugural address. Where Trump differs, however, is in the combative tone he slips into his speech.
For Donald Trump, America is in a time of existential crisis, constantly (or conveniently) threatened by external invaders. North Korea and the international crime gang MS-13 are frequently called out and victims of their violence paraded before all to see. Trump is right to call out North Korea and MS-13. The harm they can cause is real, as seen in the missing limbs of Seong-ho and the murdered Kayla Cuevas and Nissa Mickens.
However, Trump paid no mind to threats from within. He made no mention of the white nationalist rallies that graced his first summer as president, much less gave a strong condemnation of them. Much as he did during his campaign, Trump chose to lay bare his nativist sentiment, focusing on the enemy from outside.
Considering his remarks and actions over the past year, his mentions of African-American and Latino-American unemployment seem less out of genuine concern and more as an attempt to simultaneously distance himself from his statements on the campaign trail and barter for their loyalty.
Along with Seong-ho and the families of MS-13’s victims, Donald Trump made overt gestures to the “citizen” (and he did mean citizen heroes), the foundational members of a new exclusively American mythology.
Trump is right to extol people such as workers, disaster relief volunteers like the “Cajun Navy,” and those who laid down their lives for others during the Vegas shooting. He is also right to tell Americans to dream again. But in Trump’s worldview, the right to dream is only available to those bearing the status of citizen.
“Our task is to respect them, to listen to them, to serve them, to protect them, and to always be worthy of them,” the iconoclast in office said of the American people.
Whereas before America liked to cast itself as a land of opportunity where anyone from anywhere could find fame and fortune, Trump is speaking to those already living here: “So to every citizen watching at home tonight,” he says, “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.”
So, where does all of this leave us? With a president whose best calls to unity are in a speech not even written by him. He promises a new system based off of meritocracy and skill, but how true does that ring when dealing with a president infamous for his obsession with loyalty?
Trump’s State of the Union address may not have said anything we haven’t heard him say before, but his vision of a New American Future was also the crystallization of everything he has said and done over the last year. He vows to make America great again, even if it kills us.