These are all New York Times op-ed headlines about this week’s State of the Union address given by the President. What I’m wondering is: did we see the same speech?I watched the beginning of the State of the Union, caught most of the important clips, and carefully read the entire transcript, more than once (especially after seeing the intense reaction to the speech from the left). Again, I wondered: did those who reacted so severely see the same speech that I did?
I found the President’s first State of the Union address to be far too long (at just under 90 minutes, it was the second-longest in modern history, just behind Bill Clinton’s final address to Congress), short on concrete policy prescriptions (what’s new?), and honestly quite benign in comparison to Trump’s average stump speech or national address. He seemed to read off the teleprompter the entire time, which is apparent when reading the transcript of the speech, and although I thought the writing of the speech was a bit hackneyed and cliched, I didn’t find it to be obscene or despicable in any manner (and I have absolutely found other Trump speeches to be those things). The President described the state of affairs mainly through anecdote (which I find annoying and an increasing trend) and called out way too many special guests for my liking. Still, none of those things justifies the crazy reactions that have been generated by the left and the media in general.
In the Times op-eds I included in the beginning of this piece, you will read various authors (many of whom I respect otherwise) calling this quite normal speech things like “fatalist, white nationalist”, disparaging to nonwhites, “racist”, and “militaristic”, all adjectives that I would assign to other Trump speeches, perhaps (see his Inaugural Address or his campaign speech in Phoenix, for better examples), but definitely not to this one. It wasn’t only the Times that went a bit kooky after the speech though; many of the podcasts I listen to as well as liberal/left commentators on television and online attacked the State of the Union on similar grounds. Some of the areas of the speech that drew strong criticism were the parts where the President focused on his plan to legalize Dreamers in exchange for immigration restrictions and border security, called out deadly gangs like MS-13 (which is largely made up of unauthorized immigrants), and stated clearly that we were opposed to North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weaponry and ill treatment of its citizens. There were some commenters who complained about Trump’s self-congratulatory statements with respect to the economy, a staple of nearly every State of the Union I can recall when there has been even a halfway decent economy to brag about. One even found a way to spin a conspiracy theory (involving evangelical Christianity, no less) about the courageous and inspiring North Korean defector who was in the audience, my favorite part of the entire speech.
I don’t necessarily agree with President Trump’s positions on the issues he spoke about, but those in the opposition need to realize that, as former President Obama correctly stated, “Elections have consequences.” When Republicans, especially those in the wing of the party that is more hard-line, get control of all of the levers of federal government, unauthorized immigrants aren’t going to be portrayed in a positive light, abortion is not going to be seen as something that is positive, we are going to be more forward about our military defense, and things like a tax cut on corporations are going to be seen as huge wins. The President pointing those obvious Republican views out during the State of the Union address shouldn’t be surprising at all. It also isn’t racist to point out some actual facts, like the fact that some unauthorized immigrants do commit crimes in gangs like MS-13 (although most do not), the North Korean regime is abjectly despicable and deserves to fall (although it may not be prudent for us to precipitate that tomorrow), and that standing up for the national anthem is what most Americans believe is the right thing to do (although everyone has the freedom to do what they please).
The rabid level of opposition, almost reflexive opposition, from the left and Democrats is sad for me to see as someone who is for compromise, bipartisanship, and centrism. I think the one thing that the President did excellently in his speech was force Democrats in the room to stay planted in their seats with their hands in their laps, even for applause lines that should clearly have gotten everyone in the chamber to rise and clap. How terrible does it look for half of the room to be sitting on their hands when the President applauds a young boy for placing flags on the graves of veterans, or when he lauds a North Korean defector who lost limbs due to malnutrition and torture at the hands of the evil regime? The Democrats even remained seated when the President discussed a supposed Democratic priority, infrastructure, which is mind-boggling to me. Reflexive opposition does no one any favors, and makes Democrats look like petulant children, when the one who generally behaves like a child (the President) came off looking fairly decent.
The absurdist level of overreaction represented in the op-eds I referenced does two things to the left, Democrats, and the Trump opposition in general: it forces constant escalation to the point of running out of space, and it removes any possibility for compromise or accession to working together.
First, the escalatory language involved with the comparisons used closes off avenues for any future comparisons if and when things happen to actually get worse. When someone as intelligent and talented as Paul Krugman compares an anodyne speech like this one to the infamous Willie Horton campaign ad, one entirely loses context and there is no way to deescalate from there. The Horton ad, which helped to destroy the candidacy of Michael Dukakis in 1988, was actually quite racist, so if a speech like this one is supposedly ‘Worse Than Willie Horton’, what else is there to use for when the President utters something actually racist? Another op-ed writer used the title ‘Volk und Vaterland’, which calls back to WWI & WWII Germany, when one of the rallying cries of German troops was “fur Kaiser (or Fuhrer, depending on the war) Volk und Vaterland!”, meaning “for Kaiser, People, and Fatherland,” roughly. Escalating to the point where you are comparing this speech’s message with a rallying cry of WWI & WWII German soldiers (obviously in a negative light) is despicable and insults the legacy of the tens of millions of literal deaths that occurred at the hands of those very soldiers. Again, this leaves one no room for further escalation if and when there is an actual issue of militarism or racism to call out. By pigeon-holing oneself into these absurdist terms, the left is forcing their constituents into an ever-increasing cycle of fear and anger. That is far more likely to lead to the disasters the left is referencing than the rhetoric the President used in this particular speech.
The other issue that stems from this absurdist rhetoric employed by the left is that it closes off any possible opportunity for bipartisanship or compromise on anything. When the President is literally Hitler, how can you make a deal with him? When the worst person in the world proposes something you like, is it possible to agree with him? The escalatory rhetoric used by the left shuts down these possibilities. Personally, I find the immigration deal proposed by the President to be somewhat reasonable, but even if he had proposed a perfectly clean passage of the DREAM Act, I doubt that Democrats would take that up, even though it is what they purportedly want, solely because it was proposed by Donald Trump. This was the same issue that plagued the right with Obamacare, initially a Republican idea that worked under Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. When someone, in that case President Obama, is so hated and despised by one side, it is impossible to agree with them, even if their policies are in line with your preferences or values. Most of what President Trump said in the State of the Union that was considered controversial or racist by the left is widely popular with the majority of Americans: standing for the national anthem, enhancing border security, showing resolve in the face of North Korea, supporting the military and police, valuing family, and cracking down on dangerous gangs. The more the left pretends that these sentiments are anti-American and extreme, the less popular they will become and the more they will lose elections. I don’t want to see that happen, as I value a Republic that has competitive elections and political parties that balance each other, but I fear that a doubling down on identity politics, opposition to Trump above all else, and disconnection from the realities of American life are pushing the party in the wrong direction.
We need to get away from labeling everything as the “worst ever” and gain some much needed historical perspective.