By Sophie Smith
I would like to take a moment to apologize to my neighbors for my indecent behavior last Tuesday evening. I can’t imagine my shouts of exasperation and gasps dramatic enough to be heard through our shared walls complied with the hall agreement I signed at the beginning of the year.
But I think my reaction to Donald Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address was warranted. The slow-paced speech was peppered with Trump’s usual demagoguery, unapologetic lies and incessant attempts to instill a sense of unity in our divided country. None of this is new. State of the Union addresses are presidents’ annual opportunities to brag about their accomplishments, even if stretching the truth is necessary to advocate for their administrations’ bipartisan agendas. The country saw it in 2003 when George W. Bush justified the Iraqi invasion, and the economic statistics in Barack Obama’s addresses tended to be decontextualized and vague, making it seem like the economy was improving more quickly than it actually was.
Donald Trump used similar tactics in his address last week. He touted his creation of the “biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history.” Sure, they’re the biggest cuts if we’re discounting Reagan, Truman, Obama and Johnson. According to the Washington Post in November, Trump’s tax cuts are around 0.9% of America’s Gross Domestic Product. These four presidents all cut over 1.3% of GDP. Trump’s claim does hold some truth if we consider how much GDP has grown since the former presidents’ administrations, but Trump didn’t include that contextualization. It’s embellishments like these that can make misleading State of the Union addresses so misleading.
Despite Trump’s declarations, his tax cuts do little to benefit the working class. American workers have seen rising wages in the last few years, but the difference is measly. Paul Ryan said in a since-deleted tweet: “A secretary at a public high school in Lancaster, PA, said she was pleasantly surprised her pay went up $1.50 a week… she said [that] will more than cover her Costco membership for the year.” Costco is great, but what Ryan failed to mention is the abhorrent disparity of savings distribution following the cuts. The Tax Policy Center in D.C. finds that folks at the top 20% of America’s income ladder are enjoying 65% of savings, a gap projected to widen by a huge margin in coming years.
Trump’s other main talking points were all his usual ones. He spoke of the need for improvement of infrastructure and the opioid crisis —areas that do deserve attention — but he didn’t outline plans for solving either. He spoke of North Korea in warmongering terms and he even uttered the nauseating words, “the war on beautiful, clean coal.” The coal industry is faltering, but if there’s an energy-related war on anyone it’s the people whose land pipelines and fracking are destroying, not the thriving business of American nonrenewable energy exportation.
Trump also explained the four pillars of his plan for immigration reform, including several claims that were blatantly false. He said America’s visa lottery “randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit or the safety of American people.” In fact, the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program only grants visas to those who fulfill several qualifications, including education or work experience, good health, financial support and clean criminal backgrounds.
Trump also said one immigrant “can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.” According to NPR Correspondent Joel Rose, new U.S. citizens can “sponsor extended family members for visas,” but the number of available visas is limited the process takes several years. It’s not like immigrants can enter the country and immediately invite all their relatives to join them.
The president’s casual citation of these falsities is disturbing, but what’s worse is the speech’s reminder of what we’ve known since his election. Trump is here to serve one demographic only: rich, white American men.
“We are proud that we do more than any other country… to help the needy, the struggling and the underprivileged all over the world,” he said, a declaration that is insulting to every group America has ignored or directly harmed in the past —people like Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians in Jerusalem, homosexuals in Chechnya, American prisoners in solitary confinement or child soldiers in the Congo.
Trump had a lot to say about strength and unity. He did his best to create the victorious tone characteristic of State of the Union addresses, but declarations like “All of us, together, as one team, one people, one American family, can do anything” would be more appropriate on a locker room poster than in a national address. Most Americans don’t agree with this talk of unity coming from this president. Recent Gallup polls show the president’s approval rating is hovering at a pitiful 38 percent.
Trump’s attempt at inspiration is charged with dangerously nationalistic rhetoric, which distances minority groups from his definition of “one American family. Americans are dreamers, too,” he said, while failing to mention the DACA-protected DREAMers. He told the glorious story of America’s founding without saying a word about First Nation people. He exploited the misery of his guests, using most as props to justify his stances on immigration and aggression against North Korea. His rabble-rousing conclusion may have seemed to be a soaring and unifying presidential moment, but it was as exclusionary as everything else we’ve heard from him. The U.S. once prided itself as the international epitome of unification, but this racist and unfiltered administration has perverted the meaning of the word, turning it into a manifestation of narrowness, selfishness and nationalism. By the end, as the audience erupted into chants of “USA! USA! USA!” it had become impossible for me to hold in my frustration.
To my neighbors in Baxter complex, I hope you’ll forgive me.