The White House had promised optimism, but Donald Trump’s State of the Union address came out as if the script for an uplifting family drama had been turned into a screenplay for an action movie.
The body count was in the thousands. The president revelled in graphic violence and played carelessly with the facts.
He conjured up a heroic cast, including Neil Armstrong, Annie Oakley and Davy Crockett, and took us on an American Adventure – to the moon, to Mars and to the “beautiful, beautiful Alamo”.
And there was a whole shade-throwing subplot, as the president and his top Democratic rival, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, traded telegraphed insults. The drama began as he snubbed her handshake, and ended with her ostentatiously ripping his script in half behind his back.
But, for all the dramatic peaks, it was a ponderous affair – 77 minutes delivered at a funereal pace, with 129 interruptions for applause. The big take away? Trump looks strong just as the Democratic hopefuls stumbling out of Iowa seem chaotic.
Here’s what it all meant.
Say goodbye to American carnage
In his Inauguration speech of January 2017, President Trump offered a bleak vision of a blasted US landscape, of rusted factories, of drugs and gangs and crime, mothers and children trapped in inner cities – all straight from the lexicon of his adviser Steve Bannon. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he said.
Three years later – and this is the promised optimism – he boldly claimed victory and outlined what he called the Great American Comeback.
Lists of claims like this are subject to endless fact-checks and are often too subjective to scrutinise – which enemies, whose incomes, what crime figures? But it is striking how quickly members of Trump’s loyal base reach for his “Promises made, promises kept” slogan. They hear his claims and believe he has delivered.
Claim the credit
Throughout his property career, the Trump method was to take someone else’s building, slap his name on it and claim the credit. What worked in real estate is applied to politics.
Some Trump critics counter his boasting about economic achievements by noting pointedly that the Obama Recovery keeps on going. It’s true that unemployment is at a near-record low, but it is a long-term trend that began under Obama and has slowed under Trump.
He also took credit for the United States becoming the world’s leading oil and gas producer. That actually happened in 2012 under Obama. Most progress towards energy independence happened under Obama and was slowed by Trump’s trade war with China.
There were also elements of pure TV spectacle, as first the shock jock Rush Limbaugh, recently diagnosed with stage-four cancer, was given an on-the-spot Presidential Medal of Freedom by First Lady Melania Trump, and then a US military family got a surprise reunion. This stuff really connects. Several people wept in the room of Republican activists from where I watched the address.
This programme should have been rated “TV-MA” – for mature audiences only. It contained graphic descriptions of violence and moments of extreme dread. It has been a Trump trait ever since he mounted his presidential campaign that he uses lingering descriptions of violence when he is trying to whip up hostile sentiment about immigration or outsiders.
I watched the speech on Fox and in a room full of Republican activists. No doubt, they loved it, they are confident, and believe Trump, campaigning on an economic upswing, has nothing to fear from anyone in the Democratic field. He road-tested some strong lines.
Trump will certainly campaign in 2020 on low unemployment and a “roaring economy”, but growth of 2.5 per cent is nothing special, and he will be quiet on America’s record breaking $22 trillion national debt, now forecast to hit 98 per cent of GDP by 2030. Trump has cut taxes and increased federal spending to such an extent that his government will spend $1 trillion more than it collects in 2020.
Trump is getting ready to face a Democratic challenger from the left – Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren – but any Democrat is likely to be charged with wanting to bring socialism to America.
Some asides. Trump went on to promise to protect the health insurance of people with pre-existing conditions (even while his administration is battling in the courts to destroy Obama’s Affordable Care Act).
He also had some subliminal messaging – bringing Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader, to the State of the Union as a guest allowed him to highlight the American-led coalition against socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro. It also gave him a chance to join some dots; the unspoken question: “do you want to Bernie Sanders to turn America into Venezuela?”
Freedom unifies the soul. No-one knows what that means.
Plan for a sequel
He parted with a plea for four more years and the promise of further adventures. The speechwriters were going for their masterpiece but landed some way short.