Just like last year’s State of the Union address, the 2019 edition was advertised in advance as a bold outreach gesture to Democrats to advance practical-minded bipartisanship. And just like last year’s speech, it really, really wasn’t anything like that.
Sure, there were plenty of bland bromides promoting noncontroversial support for noncontroversial causes like childhood cancer research and respect for veterans, along with brag-fests taking credit for positive national trends, especially with respect to the economy. There was all sorts of patriotic cheerleading for American courage in World War II, a strangely central preoccupation for Trump in this address.
But when it comes to the partisan and ideological differences that have all but paralyzed Congress and until very recently left a big chunk of the federal government closed, there was zero presidential outreach, no offers of compromise and not a hint of respect for Trump’s opponents. He devoted a significant portion of his speech to restating his familiar and largely fabulist case that America is on the brink of catastrophe from a crisis on the southern border that only a wall can possibly address. Knowing full well that nearly all Democrats, more than a few Republicans, and a solid majority of the public reject this entire construct, he plugged away at it yet again, and didn’t even bother to explain what he plans to do if further negotiations fail — as he has predicted they will.
What made this my-way-or-the-highway approach especially egregious was Trump’s labored effort to compare his approach on immigration policy to the recently successful bipartisan effort to get an initial criminal justice bill across the line. While Trump does deserve some credit for finally abandoning his administration’s opposition to the First Step Act (his son-in-law Jared Kushner deserves more), let’s not forget that even stronger sentencing-reform legislation would have been enacted in 2016 if his top congressional ally Jeff Sessions hadn’t convinced Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell that it contradicted Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric and his fearmongering on an imaginary crime wave led by immigrants and other minority members.
That same fearmongering, of course, remains central to Trump’s immigration demagoguery, which there is no way he is going to abandon or modify before the 2020 elections, barring something really unforeseen. He has long since become convinced beyond reason that his “base” cherishes his nightmare vision of a white Christian America besieged by violent immigrants who prey on women and children, feast on America’s safety net, and work hand-in-glove with Democrats to permanently entrench themselves at the expense of hardworking taxpayers. It’s all largely poppycock, but as Trump has amply illustrated since early December, he believes he cannot afford to compromise with reality, much less with Democrats.
So presumably Trump fans will report themselves as enjoying Trump’s latest efforts, complete with its World War II and Holocaust bathos and its serial outbursts (“USA! USA!”) of jingoistic self-congratulation, even as the president prepares, most likely, to govern by an emergency declaration to get his precious wall built. If this is “bipartisanship,” it’s indistinguishable from the worst kind of arrogant partisanship. It does, however, present a fair depiction of what is in store for a paralyzed federal government until the American people, God willing, make a decisive choice in 2020.