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Rhetorical Recap: SOTU, 2018

The State of the Union Address, President Donald J. Trump, Washington DC, January 30, 2018  Democratic Party Response, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, Fall River MA, January 30, 2018

Since 1913, Presidents have used the State Of The Union Address to extol their administration’s accomplishments and prescribe an agenda for Congress. In our system, these are not small things. Congress has no Prime Minister to perform these narrative and strategic functions. Presidential persuasion can impart a sense of direction.

Since 1966, the party out of the presidency has selected one of its members to deliver a televised response that immediately follows the presidential address. These designated responders have often been subjected to a barrage of ridicule normally reserved for Vice-Presidents. Nevertheless, politicians accept the assignment.

This year, before a television audience of 45.6 million, Donald Trump smartly restrained himself in tone, topics and targets of scorn (but not speech length!). Two big passages deserve close analysis: the latest specifics of his immigration deal proposal, framed inside an exception to the no-scorning generalization, and an emotionally loaded segment about the North Korean regime. After Trump left the House chamber, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-MA) crushed the response to the point where he deserves serious consideration in 2020 as...the convention keynoter.

President Trump: Seventeen Skutniks, Four Pillars, and a Vile Slur

Trump opened in the conventional manner, with lines intended to rouse his fellow partisans out of their seats for vigorous applause. Trump brags the same way he berates, with extreme adjectives and adjectives by the bunch. He spoke of his administration’s “incredible progress,” “righteous mission,” and “extraordinary success.” He said that “our nation will forever be safe and strong and proud and mighty and free.” He referred to “beautiful clean coal.” He touted the big tax cut as a job creation and economic growth achievement. He did not insult anyone by name, occupation, organization, or country. The New York Times list remains at 425.

The president continued another SOTU speech tradition of anointing heretofore unknown Americans as heroes and having them stand for applause from their seats in the gallery. He used this reflected glory gambit with unprecedented frequency.  By my count he named seventeen of these “Skutniks,” named after the original recipient of the honor, plane crash rescuer Lenny Skutnik in 1981. (Congressman Steve Scalise, seated on the chamber floor, also received a shout-out.) Trump’s accounts of their heroism were deployed not just as applause catalysts, but crafted to reflect well on a particular accomplishment or embody the need for an agenda item. It’s a clever device, but it became obvious through repetition. It didn’t help that Trump’s cheerleading applause boomed through his microphone. Still, who would dare argue against these individuals?

By contrast, the luminary that the Skutniks were seated adjacent to, the First Lady, was mentioned by her husband only once, in passing at that. The absence of a presidential tribute to his spouse was a departure from the norm. Commenters noted that Melania wore a white pantsuit, as Hillary Clinton had when accepting her nomination. It may have been her way of saying #metoo. But she did not sport a #timesup lapel pin.

Sexual harassment was, of course, one of the issues Trump opted not to include on his SOTU Address laundry list. The Russia investigation was another. Richard Nixon had insisted in 1974 that “one year of Watergate is enough” and did not make it to 1975. Donald Trump opted out of making a similar case on this occasion, even at the end of a week of fresh revelations and pressures to squelch and tar the investigation. His restraint showed prudence. Why give your opponents in the hall an opportunity to react? When the cameras turned to the Democrats, they were shown looking sullen instead of outraged.

The first action item Trump raised came without adjectives or heroes. It was a doozy:

All Americans deserve accountability and respect -- and that is what we are giving them. So tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority to reward good workers -- and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.

Such powers of enhancement and reprisal would eviscerate the concept of a civil service and move the republic toward dictatorship. I hope it was just a verbal blast and not something in the works. If you think I’m exaggerating the threat, recall last year’s round-the-table procession of Cabinet secretaries truckling to Trump on video.

Moving down the list: Trump termed Obamacare “disastrous,” but instead of reviving the call to replace and repeal it, the president claimed victory by touting the elimination of the individual mandate to buy health insurance. On infrastructure, Trump renewed last year’s call for a leveraging of federal dollars toward a $1.5 trillion national commitment but was vague about the amount he would ask Congress for and blamed the lack of action on red tape, not lack of funding. On opioids and drug addiction, the president blamed dealers and pushers, told a story about a Skutnik couple who adopted a pregnant heroin user’s unborn child, and promised the help of his administration, but was otherwise inspecific about the epidemic’s causes (including doctors and pharmacies) and his proposed solutions. That may have been because he had another rhetorical purpose in mind regarding dealers and pushers: his immigration reform proposal:

For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.

In this passage, Trump demagogically equated low-wage workers with drug dealers and violent gangs. Yes, those who lack documentation papers should be charged with an offense and make restitution. But the eleven million plus who have entered and/or stayed in the US unlawfully are not violent criminals by and large.

Trump did not raise his voice or use the word “carnage,” as in previous speeches, but he did not have to. He could count on his audience to connect the dots of his slur. We know Trump rose to power by linking immigration to violent crime. We witnessed his politically successful invocation of the factually suspect example of Kate Steinle, the fatal victim in summer 2015 of a stray bullet fired by accident by a criminal who should not have been on the street, let alone with a gun.

He intensified the association of undocumented people with violent crime through the presence of four Skutniks whose actual tragedy of losing their daughters is apparently more in line with facts, and a fifth, a Hispanic who has performed valorously as an ICE agent. And he appropriated the name of the group under contestation in order to segregate them: “Americans are dreamers too.” Which is self-evident, to be sure, yet the dreams of legal citizens could combine with those of DREAMers to mutual social and economic benefit more readily were they spared the nightmares of deportation. Finally, in outlining his proposal’s four pillars Trump spread disinformation about the extent and legality of bringing family members into the country (“chain migration”) and the visa lottery. He thereby extended the circle of those he was derogating from undocumented to legal immigrants of certain racial colorations and geographic areas of origin.

But here’s the thing: a decent deal is within reach. Trump asked for three pillars (closing off family members, ending the visa lottery, and building the wall) in exchange for one (a path to citizenship). The one would relieve millions of people and those who love and hire them from constant worry of potential deportation. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the deal went south, so to speak, because its compromise-ready terms were obscured by the lies, insults, u-turns, and racism of the offerer?

Regarding North Korea, the president did not repeat his “fire and fury” threat, that phrase having been swiped and repurposed by Michael Wolff. Still, Trump laid on the moral condemnation, referencing the “depraved character” of the regime, a nice phrase, and introducing three more Skutniks: the parents of the effectively murdered UVA student Otto Warmbier, who shed contagious tears, and Ji Seong-Ho, an escapee waving the crutches he used before obtaining an artificial leg. I don’t know how this section of the speech will affect the “two minutes to midnight” situation in which the world finds itself. (Not that song. This estimation.) I do know that I was moved.

President Trump spoke often of unity. He started numerous sentences with “Let’s” instead of “I.” But as we consider whom he had foremost in mind with that plural, it is worth noting that his sponsored webstream version of the address featured names of donors scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

Representative Kennedy: Soaring Over a Low Bar         

Joseph P. Kennedy III began his thirteen-minute response with low expectations. What could this scion of privilege possibly do decently in the second-tier speaking slot? Low expectations can work to an orator’s advantage, especially one with the freedom to stage one’s remarks and the absence of constraints that being part of policy negotiations confers. Kennedy delivered. He cut loose from issue details and spoke about values shared by immigrants of all legal status, millennials (he is 37), and the white working class. Others share them as well, but these three groups can make for a majority Democratic coalition.

Kennedy stood in front of a local audience of vocational education students. An old Ford Mustang with the hood propped open (get it?) sat behind him. And Congressman Kennedy opened by introducing his district city of Fall River as “an American city built by immigrants.” So by luck or good planning, he engaged on the key issue from Trump’s address. But, in contrast to numerous Democrats with presidential ambitions who also spoke in response after Trump’s address in unofficial channels, Kennedy eschewed personal attack.

“We all feel the fault lines of a fractured country,” Kennedy said. He blamed the current administration for propagating a vision of a zero-sum society and “targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.” Instead of choosing between immigrants and what he left unsaid as whites, “we choose both.” Switching into fluent Spanish, he addressed the former and then translated: “You are a part of our story. We will fight for you. We will not walk away.” His performance evoked the brash eloquence of “Hamilton” and the “Hamilton Mixtapes.” No singing or dancing, however --and some very evident drool coming out of the right side of his mouth.

Kennedy concluded with the assertion that in America bullies always lose. Which raises a structural question about fair fighting in a system that has evolved beyond its design to feature a bully pulpit.

The State of Political Debate

The asymmetry between the State of the Union Address and the Official Response exposes a weakness in how US political rhetoric proceeds. That Kennedy chose to talk about immigration as an Anglo added an opposing view, indeed a majority view according to the polls. Before his response, the only Anglo voices audible as a contrast to Trump’s were those of vanquished Republicans Jeb Bush and John Kasich. There are many Latino voices protesting Trump’s position, but they come saddled by the perception of self-interested identity politics. There are able pro-immigration negotiators, such as Senators Schumer, Durbin, Murray, and Graham, but they speak across a table, not to the general public, except when they have presidential swear words to leak.

The annual government ritual to discuss the state of the union is better structured in the United Kingdom, where the Queen’s Speech (written by the party in power) is followed by five days of actual back-and-forth debate over accomplishments and agendas in the House of Commons. Any Americans interested in constructing such a debate for their consideration must correct for the asymmetry by seeking out the short counter-address and skimming C-SPAN.

Most of them settle for watching and reading about the responses of talk-show comedians. It’s a bizarre, if typically American, way to consume a debate.