Every year, the President of the United States takes advantage of the bully pulpit to brag a bit about his accomplishments, promote his political plans for the future and bask in the spotlight of an occasion in which much of the world is watching, and decorum (usually) requires even political enemies to listen politely, or at least silently, before dutifully responding to rebut pretty much everything said, but to a smaller audience. This year was no different.
In fact, this year’s speech was remarkable mostly by how unremarkable it was. It was a pretty standard political speech, and someone who has not lived through the last year and just listened to that speech might be forgiven for thinking that this presidency and this president were pretty standard as well.
As he has two or three other times during his first year in office, President Trump managed to sound almost presidential. He didn’t tell more than a few outright lies, although he stretched the truth and exaggerated many more times and claimed undue credit for lots of things. However, in contrast to his record throughout the rest of the year, he was no more dishonest than most other politicians.
Yes, there was a bit of a racist tinge to some of his comments on immigration, and his use of the victims of crime by immigrants was a bit of despicable hate-mongering political theater. But this miserly portion of red meat thrown to the unruly mob of his hard-core supporters pales in comparison to the banquet feast of racism and othering that he usually lays out for them.
The policies he laid out were very conservative, but (with a few exceptions) not really outside the realm of rational policy discussion. Lip service was paid to seeking consensus, to bipartisanship, to seeking to unite the country.
That, more than anything, reveals the fact that the speech, at its core, was deeply disingenuous. If the last year has taught us anything, it is that Donald J.Trump has no intention of seeking consensus, of working across party lines, or of trying to unite the country. Unless you consider forcibly shutting down all dissent to be uniting the country.
No, above all else, Donald Trump is a divider, not a unifier. He has made no secret of his disdain for compromise and for those who disagree with him. Trump’s words and actions, throughout this year, have driven us further apart as Americans than at any other point in my lifetime. Perhaps more so than at any point since the Civil War. Certainly more than at any point since the tumultuous 1960s. He, frankly, is utterly incapable of uniting our country, even if he were interested in doing so.
To be truthful, I’m not sure anybody is. We are not united. And perhaps we do not even want to be united. We cannot even agree about basic facts. We cannot agree about what our values are as a nation, much less how to apply those values. A large percentage of us refuses to acknowledge the validity of scientific fact or the value of expert opinions. Many of us refuse to even consider well-thought out and eloquently expressed opinions of those who believe differently than we do. Rather we prefer deceptive but pithy memes and insults for each other that serve to injure and drive us further apart without adding anything to the overall public discourse. Many people apparently find it increasingly difficult to differentiate between legitimate sources of information and rank propaganda, and frequently favor the latter when it reinforces their own opinions.
No, at this point we do not really have a union to speak of. We only have disunion. Yes, President Trump is a huge part of that, but he exploited it more than he created it. The problem runs much deeper, and it will destroy us if we cannot honestly address it. It is, perhaps, the only real threat to our country as a whole. None of our external foes are anywhere near strong enough to destroy us, but we are quite capable of ripping ourselves apart, and we are currently busy doing so.
There is still some small space left to find common ground, but it is rapidly shrinking. To do so, we need to stop demonizing political enemies. We need to firmly reject racism and the scapegoating of groups that look, believe and think differently than we do. We need to restore some level of civility in our public discourse. We need to be honest about the faults of those leaders we do support and worry more about our own sins than we do about those of others. We need more rational discourse and less vicious attacks. We need to respect hard-won expertise and scientific consensus, even when it does not support our preferred political views, and find ways to respond with equal levels of wisdom and learning. We need to understand the biases and record for factual accuracy of the sources we use for news and information and correct for those biases and give more credence to those with good records for accuracy.
None of this may be possible with Donald Trump as president. But we must look to the day when he is no longer president, and we will need to pick up the pieces and learn to live with each other again.
Until then we will not have a State of the Union. Only a dismal reminder of our disunion.