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In The Meaning of Conservatism and several other books, the English philosopher Roger Scruton argues for the importance of the first-person plural—the “We” that binds us together as a community, a people, a nation. Tuesday night, in his magnificent State of the Union Address, Donald Trump did something similar.
Trump’s speech was full of memorable lines: the “new American moment,” “Americans are Dreamers, too,” “complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation.” But perhaps the most memorable line, playing off the president’s campaign slogan, came at the end: “It is the people who are making America great again.”
Any dispassionate observer has to acknowledge that over the last year Donald Trump has given a series of great speeches. I use the word “great” advisedly. His speech in Riyadh about naming and battling Islamic terrorism; in Warsaw about supporting the core values of Western civilization; national security speeches emphasizing the ideal of peace through strength. Those were speeches for the history books. And on top of all those was Tuesday night’s speech at the Capitol. Its theme? Putting aside the partisan passions that divide us in order to go forward as a people united in the goal of making a better America.
Republican pollster and former Trump critic Frank Luntz was stunned by the address. The speech was, Luntz said in one tweet, “a perfect blend of strength and empathy.” In another, he added: “Tonight, I owe Donald Trump an apology. Tonight, I was moved and inspired. Tonight, I have hope and faith in America again.”
Many people agreed with him. And it is easy to see why. Over the past year, Donald Trump has racked up victory after victory. In his judicial appointments, in his energy policy, his attack on illegal immigration, his efforts to dismantle or at least pare back the Leviathan that is the administrative state, scrapping the individual mandate of Obamacare, hugely reducing the tax burden for both businesses and individuals, strengthening America’s military: in these and other initiatives he has taken bold steps to fulfill his campaign promises to return power from Washington to the People and “make America great again.”
And his efforts have borne fruit, as the evidence of the stock market, consumer confidence, new jobs, historically low unemployment, and robust economic growth demonstrate.
As Frank Luntz suggested, the great art of Trump’s speech was its dialectic of compassion and composure. It would be nice, Trump said, if someday in the future mankind could dispense with the awesome instruments of war and live in peace. But until that utopian day arrives, the better part of wisdom is articulated in Kipling’s “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”:
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.
Trump’s speech reached with an open hand across the bitter partisan divide that has disfigured our public life these last couple of decades and whose destructiveness was ratcheted sharply upwards with this president’s improbable election. There were two leitmotifs to his speech: strength, on the one hand, and a willingness to compromise on the other. The pressing question for what the commentator Ron Radosh has eloquently called the “leftover Left” is whether they will grasp the proffered hand or drown in their own petulance.
The evidence on display last night was not encouraging as the bitterest precincts of Democratic animus were on parade. The president announces that black unemployment is the lowest on record. The red side of the chamber, and many sensible Democrats, rise and applaud. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and their churlish partisan enablers like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer glower and remain seated.
Tuesday night, caught unawares on the stage of history, the childish party looked like so many deer caught in the headlights of actual progress. There they sat, mute and frozen as ideas and accomplishments they might well have lauded only yesterday were trotted out in quick succession. Donald Trump was cheerfully, extravagantly specific as he peppered the crowd with aspiration after aspiration, achievement after achievement. $4,000 extra a year for a middle-class family of four making $75,000 per annum, Kemo Sabe—and what (the implied question was) has the other side done for you lately? It was said with a smile. It was all delivered with seriousness and patience and patently genuine concern.
Donald Trump had plans and policies; he came bearing understanding and accomplishments and a willingness to compromise on such key issues as immigration reform. The Democrats—the Pelosi-Schumer Axis of it, anyway—came bearing its hatred of Trump. The commentary on the speech reeked of sweaty desperation. Fact checkers discovered that Donald Trump exaggerated when describing his tax cut as the biggest ever. It was only one of the biggest ever. See? See?
That was it really. That’s all they have. “The Resistance.” “Literally Hitler.” Scream at the sky, comrades! A truly pathetic commentator at Slate (pardon the pleonasm) asserted that, when Trump called on Congress to empower the Cabinet to dismiss federal workers who were not doing their jobs, he was asking Congress “to end the rule of law.” Yes, really. This is not provocative. It is sclerotic, partisan insanity. It reminded me of the end of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
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