The SOTU, or as I like to call it, STFU
I didn’t want to watch. The tickets had typos (I know, this is the least of our worries). But then I listened to David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism on Audible on the way into work today and remembered that things are not newly bad. Things have been careening toward deficit-driven upward redistribution of wealth since at least the George W. Bush Administration. We need to watch in order to bear witness. In truth, I’m torn between giving Trump too much attention and doing my civic duty. I decided to do my civic duty.
Before the address, I looked up “pre-game” reports and found that ABC called it Trump’s First “Must See TV” State of the Union and almost decided against watching again. But here I am. Girding my loins. I switched to CBS. Ok, I can’t talk about how creepy the thing is, how viscerally difficult it is to watch: Trump’s squint, his hand gestures, Paul Ryan’s self-satisfied smirk. This cannot be my focus. As I’ve been saying since more than year ago, these things are not what we need to concern ourselves with.
What we need to be concerned with is what Trump says he will do (full transcript here) and what Trump seems capable of doing. We need to consider whether Trump’s efforts to “Make America Great Again for All Americans” will, or whether they are in fact only for some Americans, as I argued over the weekend. To that end I would say, if the measure of the State of the Union is the strength of our people, as Trump says it is, people who don’t feel like things are so good for them might still affirm the strength of the Union to acknowledge their own strength. But if the measure is in fact how the working class, the sick, the immigrants are doing, it is not through lack of strength that they are not doing well, but tax cuts for the rich, resistance to buttressing the ACA, travel bans on Muslims and revocations of immigrant status that these people are not doing well. The required support for the military and the police, the demand to stand for the anthem, these are the things that divide, that ignore why some Americans do not see the government, the police or the flag as standing for them. The celebration of the 2nd Amendment when there have been 11 school shootings in January of this year is a mockery. The cheering of tax cuts in that chamber testifies to the divide between what those people think a strong union looks like and what the rest of us would require for the union to be strong. The politicization of the Courts and the stated political position that judges will be expected to have who are nominated cheap. The notion that federal employees can be removed for perceived undermining of the public trust or failing of the American people pits the work of civil servants against the demands of their political administrators.
But the misstatements. Having more take home pay from your paycheck does not really mean that the tax cut has really relieved the working and middle class of their tax burden at all. The celebration of the corporate tax rate cut for example, and the statement that it will cut the average family tax by $4000 really plays on the meaning of “average”. Wages for workers are not rising whatever high profile companies might have given their workers raises. Also, working hard in America will not allow you to be anything. That just is not the case, however much we all love the American Dream, upward mobility story. Eliminating regulations makes no one more accountable, despite what Trump says.
Today in class I taught Arendt on ideology. Ideology is the logic of an idea, she writes. This morning, on Morning Edition, Mara Liasson talked about the state of American politics as tribal. People think their side is right because it is their side, she said. That seems to fit nicely into Arendt’s account of ideology. Everything that happens can be fit into the ideology, and what does not fit is forced to fit. The ideology is itself forced into the world. It worries me that there is an ideology of Trump. What he says is true because he is our guy who won. But the thing about this ideology is not that it is even an idea, or that it has a logic. It is an ideology without purpose, it’s idea is the man. It moves around with the whim of the man. So he can say all these things this moment, but it isn’t even clear that he is committed to them, or that he will be committed to these efforts tomorrow.
At a certain point, I just started to be sad. It isn’t true that we haven’t seen car companies come to the US in a long time, but Trump says it and people will believe it. Companies might have good reason beyond tax rates not to want to be in the United States. The money for the infrastructure was just given away to the very rich in that last tax cut, and now we say we need to partner with private companies for the infrastructure? I feel like the potholes are mocking us.
Finally, I want to say no, no. We will not characterize immigrants as criminals. We will not characterize them as the enemy. Trump must know he is wrong when he says everyone in the chamber is praying for the couple who he is using as a prop to incite hatred against immigrants. But it doesn’t matter. He tells them that 325 million hearts are breaking for them and that we love them. My heart is not breaking for this scene, my heart is breaking for the immigrants who will be harmed by these words and by the policies that this Administration is pushing. This country is not compassionate. When Trump says his concern is for America’s children, America’s workers and America’s forgotten communities, he shows that America is really only those it is in fact concerned with, and not those it ignores. The tribalism part works to make those on Trump’s side think that means them even when it doesn’t. I know Trump hasn’t actually achieved that much this year, but I think this speech reiterates a view of the country that divides it between who it is really for and everyone else who is not included in Trump’s concern.
Everyone else: we can still resist. He has the lowest approval rating of any American president one year in.
Trump is recklessly dividing the country, egged on by Congress. The most disappointing moment was Members of Congress ending with chants of #USA. His immigration plan is wrongheaded and cruel. His version of the 21st century is xenophobic. Trump’s view of bringing out the best in America is militaristic abroad and repressive at home. He thinks justice is giving benefit to friends and harm to enemies while he has no knowledge of what benefit or harm is, both in a sense of the good as such and in a realpolitik sense of good for America. Like I said at the top, I recognize in many ways how these policies are continuations of earlier administrations. But still, I’m not sure it was good to watch. It was a little painful.