At an hour and twenty minutes, President Trump’s second State of the Union message on the longest on record. This was partly because of the jack-in-the-box behaviour of the members of the Senate and Congress, and their propensity to applaud at virtually every other sentence – it would have been nicer for the viewer if President Trump had just gotten on with it, but that wasn’t going to happen.
It was, however, a small compensation watching Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader of the Senate, not rising and applauding every time the President said a key word; it was also notable that his face was frequently almost as wooden as that of the vice-president, Mike Pence. Of course, this might only have been the case every time he was caught on camera. Another significant chunk of time was taken up by the President’s invocations of a number of Americans who had done admirable things, from fighting World War II to a ten-year-old girl who had raised thousands of dollars for a local hospital. Each had to stand, each had his or her story told, each was applauded, and each was thanked by the president. Again, this was not the first inclusion of personal stories in the State of the Union speech, but it did seem to go on a bit. I wanted to listen to his policy proposals and justifications, to remind myself exactly why I was sitting up at 2am watching this speech.
Did we get what we expected? There was, of course, a call for bipartisanship and for embracing compromise and the common good. There was the list of accomplishments, the 5.2million new jobs, and the claim that the US was now a net exporter of energy. But, Trump warned, the economy could be imperilled by foolish wars, politics, and “ridiculous” investigations. And the wall? “I will get it built!” Was this an implied threat of another government shutdown in ten days’ time? Certainly, the applause was not overwhelming.
While the call for the wall was not unexpected, what was unexpected was his celebration of women. The statement that 58% of the new jobs created had gone to women, and that the number of women in Congress – 102, plus 25 in the Senate – was the largest number in American history. This led to an eruption of applause and a lot of high-fiving amongst congresswomen. They were especially noticeable because they had worn white, the colour of the Suffragettes, and, sat together, they really stood out amongst the sea of dark suits. It was however, ironic, that so many of the new intake being praised by the president were Democrats who had defeated Republicans.
Trump called for Congress to make possible a huge programme to remedy the nation’s infrastructure, which in places is more third-world than first-world. He also called for the lowering of the cost of healthcare, a fight against childhood cancers and AIDS, and paid parental leave. This was a clever move – these are programmes on which the Democrats will agree to work with the Republicans. These an also helpful for the Democrats, because this collaboration would absolve them of the charge of adamant obstructionism. Trump’s call for the prohibition of late-term abortions, though, will be problematic for some.
There was foreign policy; Trump celebrated the ending of NAFTA, the withdrawal from the INF Treaty, and the withdrawal of the nuclear agreement with Iran. This was all expected. What was perhaps unexpected was his statement that if he had not been elected president, the US would most likely now be involved in a major war with North Korea. The audience looked a touch stunned, as they might well be. He also took the occasion to announce a summit with Kim in Vietnam, a tribute, he clearly felt, to his personal relationship with Kim. The man never loses his optimism.
One of his speechwriters produced the phrase “great nations do not fight endless wars”. Someone does not know his or her history – one needs only to remember that America’s drive to take over the continent required endless wars against Native Americans from the 17th through most of the 19th Century, the War of 1812 with Great Britain, and the war with Mexico in 1848-49. This statement was the preface, though, to re-announcements that Trump will bring back all soldiers from Syria, and that negotiations in pursuit of a political solution are taking place in Afghanistan. The latter policy at least could be applauded by all.
The president ended the speech with the classic syrup of these occasions. Not all of his statements will pass the fact-checkers, and the calls for co-operation and bipartisanship were accompanied by implied threats over the border wall, but on the whole, the speech was not as self-destructive as the Democrats had hoped and the Republicans had feared.
Kathleen Burk is professor emerita of modern and contemporary history at University College London, and author of 12 books