President Trump had promised a unifying speech, and he was true to his word, delivering a State of the Union on Tuesday night perfectly pitched to satisfy a party now thoroughly unified behind him. Buoyed by a booming economy, a becalmed international scene and a congressional majority that has obligingly placed the skids under an independent investigation it was inevitably going to dismiss anyway, the president stood at a new pinnacle of his year-old administration. It was one from which all concerned could glimpse at last a future of soaring popularity that might well see Mr. Trump through his first term, and his party through what had been looking like a dire midterm election.
The sense of almost giddy relief seemed palpable in the Capitol, where Mr. Trump’s fellow Republicans greeted him with sustained applause, repeatedly rose into enthusiastic standing ovations, and at the end delivered a thunderous chorus of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” that would have done any party rally proud.
Mr. Trump, for his part, played at Ozymandias, complete with frown, and wrinkled lip, and the sneer of cold command. He moved around the podium snuffling, nodding, mugging, gesticulating, applauding his own words, and squinting heroically (profile turned to the left!). He bit off choice words ferociously and gestured contemptuously toward the Democrats whenever they failed to join in the applause.
He took full credit for every good thing that has happened in the last year, and if he did it with less grace and more braggadocio than most, well, that is what politicians do. The economy, in the ninth year of its expansion, is good, and the Islamic State has been vanquished, for now, even if it had already been reduced to a single, besieged city in the desert.
If it seems remarkable that this thrice-married serial groper, who demonstrated during the campaign that he did not understand the most basic tenets of Christianity, would shout out: “We know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of American life. The motto is ‘In God We Trust!’” — well, that’s par for the course as well, in our post-hypocrisy age.
There was the expected laundry list of hoary, right-wing shibboleths, grudges and chimeras. We have, somehow, a military that is not yet “fully” funded, and a nuclear arsenal that we need to “rebuild” so that it will “deter any acts of aggression.” We have “released hundreds and hundreds of terrorists, only to meet them again on the battlefield,” but under Mr. Trump, we have at least deported or jailed “thousands and thousands and thousands” of deadly gang members. It seems that “we are now very proudly an exporter of energy to the world” (we were before) and “our warriors in Afghanistan” will “no longer” be “undermined by artificial timelines,” and we will “no longer tell our enemy our plans.” (Translation, warriors: you’re going to be there forever.)
It was at its heart, though, a nasty little speech, one in which Mr. Trump brought the already odious State of the Union tradition of exploiting human props to a shameless new low. Again and again, he used actual people in the audience to turn real human tragedies and triumphs into taunting slaps at the opposition.
A little boy’s campaign to put American flags on the graves of veterans was turned seamlessly into another smack at the black athletes who dared to protest racism by kneeling during the national anthem. Conversely, one of the most horrific mass shootings in American history was heralded for “strangers shielding strangers from gunfire on the Vegas Strip.”
Most revolting of all, though, was the moment when Mr. Trump sank to using the weeping parents of two murdered teenage girls on Long Island to associate the MS-13 gang first with the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who seek refuge in the United States every year from the violence in their home countries and then by implication with Latino immigrants and even the Dreamers. Mr. Trump pivoted quickly from the parents to this:
My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.
His turning on the Dreamers like this even as he supposedly advocated for them was a blood libel beyond anything I have heard from an American president. It was cheered to the rafters by the members of Mr. Trump’s party, which proved once again how much they deserve one another.
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