President Trump heeded the urgings of his putative friends and vociferous foes for a uniting speech to Congress. The nags got what they deserved: Trump’s statesmanlike analysis of the stasis, or gridlock, that infects Washington.
The most successful partisanship is that which has the patina of nonpartisanship. Americans have always despised parties—understanding them to be, at best, a necessary evil. Which do you prefer: the stupid party or the evil one?
President Trump’s first State of the Union address earns high marks for its successful partisan rhetoric—hurling his sullen Democratic opponents outside the political consensus on a host of issues. At the same time, he has shown his conservative allies on immigration how to win on their issues, appearing to offer amnesty for millions of illegals in return for other immigration policies (e.g., ending chain migration) that would blow up the leftist coalition of identity politics interests. “Americans are dreamers too,” he reminded us. And he proposed a Democratic-style infrastructure reform with a $1.5 trillion price tag to horrify his deficit hawk friends.
Thus, Trump attempts to take up this paradoxical task: he is draining the swamp by drowning or flooding it with appeals to higher principles. He speaks of the common good and good sense of the people, something forgotten or pushed aside in the more condescending rhetoric of both parties. Whether the force of these refreshing rhetorical waters will be sufficient to push through any of these policies—or whether he really wants to—are separate issues. The politics of the situation now are that whichever party suffers the most, Trump can emerge the winner. But his won’t be a mere personal victory—with his victory American principles triumph and the American people are ascendant, as I will argue.
Reading Trump’s speech in light of other State of the Union addresses makes evident its political deftness. This is not some ham-handed Bill Clinton-esque (as per his 1995 address) savaging of “illegal aliens” in a cynical ploy at triangulation (this, right after he deplored Americans for “shouting at each other more”).
Former Clinton adviser Elaine Kamarck comes closer to the mark in her rundown of State of the Union speeches throughout our history, contrasting the ridiculous with the sublime, and heaping praise on Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 address—the famous “Four Freedoms” speech. Much can be learned from that speech which stands as a standard for effective partisanship.
And as it happens, Trump’s speech meets and exceeds the criteria for success that FDR set. (Thank you, Henry Olsen.)
No Democrat today could match Roosevelt. They can only pretend to his greatness, in pantomime fashion. Roosevelt made it clear: “The best way of dealing with the few slackers or trouble makers in our midst is, first, to shame them by patriotic example, and, if that fails, to use the sovereignty of government to save government.”
In his “Second Bill of Rights” speech in 1944, Roosevelt claimed that Republicans of the 1920s embodied “the spirit of Fascism here at home.” He was not shy about suggesting that his political opponents were anti-American. In fact, Roosevelt insisted they were. Today’s Left continues with this tradition but, as I mentioned, in ways that are but a pathetic echo of Roosevelt and out of touch with the animating spirit of the American people.
In point of fact, it is bizarre that anyone could accuse Trump of fascism or authoritarianism when the Left’s favorite or second-favorite president took such pleasure in wielding power, often recklessly. But Democrats remain as ignorant of their own party’s history as they are of what constitutes America’s core.
As we see from Trump’s speech on Tuesday, he is the one who best embodies the strength of Roosevelt and the moderation of Reagan. Who stands for freedom of speech today? Not the universities or the media, but the leading enemy of political correctness, Trump. Who stands for robust freedom of religion? Not the Democrats.
Roosevelt also hailed “equality of opportunity” and “The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living” among the traits of democratic life. Contemporary elites do not think in such terms, though ordinary people do. These were themes in Trump’s address as he spoke of America as a “nation of builders.” Trump, the consummate builder, turns out to know a thing or two about what it takes to build a great people.
A prosperous economy and peace at home and abroad also reflect Trump’s economic policies on taxes, trade, and regulation and his America-First foreign policy. They add up the security FDR sought for the ordinary citizen ensured by our unquestioned strength at home and abroad.
Trump’s attacks on the “administrative state” reflect those of Reagan in his first inaugural: “From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” So let cabinet secretaries fire their bureaucrats!
Love of country makes demands on the government, Trump explained: “Americans love their country. And they deserve a government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return.” Following an artful weaving of extraordinary stories of individual heroism with policy positions, Trump’s final defense of American greatness is his flooding of the swamp.
“And freedom stands tall over one more monument: this one. This Capitol. This living monument to the American people . . . this Capitol, this city, and this nation, belong to them.” Which means, “Our task is to respect them, to listen to them, to serve them, to protect them, and to always be worthy of them.” Trump returned to the themes of his inaugural and contrasted the real Capitol, the mostly dubious sorts in front of him, with his ideal Capitol of the American people, such as the heroes in the gallery. Trump is their tribune.
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