Ignore the game-show aspects of President Trump’s State of the Union address this week. Presidents have been rewarding and buying blocs of voters for eons. That part was perfunctory. Yet the former reality TV star had more to offer his American and world audience: the American soul, robust and confident.
Unlike progressive presidents such as Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Trump went to the heart of America. Hence the seeming intrusion from the talk of love.
The power of Trump’s speech is found exactly in its resting on philosophic truths, which correspond to the truths of the Declaration of Independence and its appeal to the nation’s soul—not to traits or moods such as avarice, timidity, or stubbornness, nor to class or racial or ethnic divisions, nor to self-interest narrowly considered but rather to the core of patriotism.
He spoke directly to the American character, beginning with the theme of “the great American comeback”—hadn’t we just seen Super Bowl and World Series comebacks? And aren’t comebacks based on the spirit, the gumption, that one can and must win?
Two passages from early in the speech reinforce each other and are instructive.
First, in introducing the legitimate Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó in the visitors’ gallery, Trump declared, “Socialism destroys nations. But always remember, freedom unifies the soul.”
Later, introducing the 100-year-old Tuskegee airman, General Charles McGee, and his precocious great-grandson, the president reflected, “We must never forget that the only victories that matter in Washington are victories that deliver for the American people. The people are the heart of our country, their dreams are the soul of our country, and their love is what powers and sustains our country.”
Love, dreams, and the soul form the architecture of Trump the builder’s speech. This is a political truth that has been understood since Plato’s Republic.
The enemy, then, of such a psychology is socialism—the principle that the demands of society are superior to the rights of individuals. At stake are the prosperity and freedom of America, and hence its material and spiritual greatness. Socialism makes such greatness impossible; that is its goal and the reason it is truly evil.
Trump makes clear that freedom means the purposes of that freedom. The purpose distinguishes the noble from the base. The freedom that culminates in the “pursuit of happiness” is not mere self-expression or freedom of motion. It contains an element of the sacred.
The now anti-Trump critic and Pulitzer-winning journalist George Will once recognized the importance of dreams and soul in a column he wrote about Trump in the 1980s:
Donald Trump is not being reasonable . . . . But, then, man does not live by reason alone, fortunately. Trump, who believes that excess can be a virtue, is as American as Manhattan’s skyline, which expresses the Republic’s erupting energies. He says the skyscraper is necessary because it is unnecessary. He believes architectural exuberance is good for us [and] he may have a point. Brashness, zest, and elan are part of this country’s character.
We recall at this point that one of Trump’s few literary references (other than to himself as the Ernest Hemingway of Twitter) is to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the hero of which is the defiant anti-establishment architect Howard Roark. This energy of Trump’s soul, this defiance of an out-of-control establishment working against true beauty and achievement, is what he wants his public architecture to produce in all who view it and are stirred to love and live with more passion. Now, instead of buildings that inspire—see Trump’s commitment to ambitious, beautiful, and inspiring architecture—Trump sees an economy, an infrastructure, and a revived military, including a new Space Force that energizes individuals to reach beyond themselves.
Thus, Trump concluded his address with an appeal to the pioneer spirit of Americans:
America is the place where anything can happen! America is the place where anyone can rise. And here, on this land, on this soil, on this continent, the most incredible dreams come true!
This Nation is our canvas, and this country is our masterpiece. We look at tomorrow and see unlimited frontiers just waiting to be explored. Our brightest discoveries are not yet known. Our most thrilling stories are not yet told. Our grandest journeys are not yet made. The American Age, the American Epic, the American Adventure, has only just begun!
Our spirit is still young; the sun is still rising; God’s grace is still shining; and my fellow Americans, the best is yet to come!
Is Trump here too in love with modernity, change, flux, and progress? Is there only chaos, to be brought into order by strong men and gods?
No, Trump is questioning modernity. He had prefaced his conclusion with this sobering thought, an “eternal truth”: “We are Americans. We are the pioneers. We are the pathfinders. We settled the new world, we built the modern world, and we changed history forever by embracing the eternal truth that everyone is made equal by the hand of Almighty God.”
As human beings, we are each unequal in a variety of trivial and in some important ways, but we know God made each of us equal in a special and essential way. The American change of history was not to claim to have ended history but rather to have founded our nation on the proposition that all men are created equal and can be a part of our history. We are a people ever ancient, ever new. Not theatrics, but this old teaching is at the heart of President Trump’s remarkable State of the Union address.