State of the Union Rebuttal: Stacey Abrams issues a sharp critique of Trumpism

In a forceful yet measured address Abrams sought common ground with all Americans, bar Trump.

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Stacey Abrams is everything President Donald Trump is not, and her State of the Union rebuttal was everything Trump’s speech was not. Trump, the political dilettante, the divider, the morally bankrupt reality TV salesman, read out bromides about bipartisanship in the tone of someone reciting a shopping list. Abrams, the first black woman to issue the address to the nation, a lawyer and voting rights activist, a political unifier, spoke with passion and warmth to issue a call for national solidarity that served simultaneously as a stern rebuke of the president and his Republican loyalists.

In the current US climate, even bipartisanship is a partisan issue: how can you speak of the need to reach across the political divide without mentioning that the president is effectively holding the country hostage over a $5.7bn border wall? How can you affirm a commitment to democratic values, to insuring that all Americans have a right to vote, without alluding to the Republican party’s systemic voter suppression and the president’s willingness to use false claims of voter fraud to challenge electoral results he doesn’t like? How can you speak of the principle of equality, without making allusion to the fact that the president is a racist? America’s political class once agreed on the fundamental rules of the game, but under Trump that is no longer the case.

Abrams shared the kinds of personal stories that Trump cannot tell, stories that will resonate with many ordinary Americans on both sides of the aisle. She spoke of her mother, a librarian, and her father, a shipyard worker who sometimes had to hitchhike or walk the 30 miles home from work, and once gave away his only coat to a homeless man. She spoke of her family’s struggles to pay for her father’s cancer treatment. What could Trump say: when my Dad gave me $413 million, I made it my life’s mission to make millions more?

She described the US as a country that promises opportunity for all, and spoke of the importance of family values, faith, service, education and responsibility – all ideals that are shared on both sides of the political divide (though they propose different solutions) and yet ones that are alien to the playboy president. In a sense, this was a call for principled Republicans, both voters and politicians, to break away from Trumpism.

Abrams was at her most powerful when she attacked the president directly, her blows hitting harder because while the president trades in blunt personal insults and all-caps Twitter tirades, Abrams’ criticism was delivered coolly and refined to a sharp point. “Making livelihoods of our federal workers a pawn for political games is a disgrace. The shutdown was a stunt, engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values,” she said of the recent 35-day shutdown over border wall funding, the longest in American history.

 She condemned racism and attacked the president directly again over his mendacity. “We ned him to tell the truth, to respect his duties, and to respect the extraordinary diversity that defines America,” she said.

Abrams also criticised Trump’s hard-line immigration policy and his obsession with a Mexican border wall, saying that “America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants and not walls” and highlighting his monstrous policy of splitting migrant families at the border. She called for better funding for education, stricter gun controls, protecting women’s right to abortion, the reduction of healthcare costs and the expansion of Medicare – though some left-wing voters may feel disappointed she did not discuss the political hot-topic of Medicare-for-all.

Last year, Abrams narrowly lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race to the Republican Brian Kemp, amid widespread voter suppression. Kemp remained Georgia’s secretary of state even while campaigning for governor, which means he oversaw his own election, including the purging of hundreds of thousands of mostly black voters and the closure of hundreds of polling stations, mostly in rural, low-income, non-white, Democrat-voting areas. In 2013, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project, a non-profit that encourages traditional non-voters to vote. Since losing in the midterms, she has ramped up her efforts to combat voter suppression through a new organisation called Fair Vote.

Her calls for voter reform formed the heart of her speech. “This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have a say in the vision they want for our country,” she said. “The foundation of our moral leadership around the globe is free and fair elections, where voters pick their leaders, not where politicians pick their voters.”

Abrams’ campaign for voting reform has raised her profile within the Democratic party, and underlines her ability to rally a broad base of voters. “Democratic leaders’ decision to have Abrams deliver the response shows the party isn’t quite as lost as it was in the months following Trump’s surprising victory over Hillary Clinton. The party, or at least its top operatives, now knows in what direction it wants to head, and it’s toward more candidates like Abrams,” Kevin Robillard wrote in the Huffington Post, “the party, which spent much of 2017 and 2018 caught in a debate about whether it should focus on mobilizing young people and voters of color or winning over suburban voters who are disenchanted with Trump, views Abrams as proof it doesn’t need to be a choice.”

While the State of the Union rebuttal is often a flop or a forgettable non-event, Abrams’ forceful but measured delivery, her blueprint for a new Democratic – and democratic – future, is likely to linger. She is said to be considering a Senate run in 2020, and her speech will no doubt have boosted her profile and broadened her popularity. This was, after all, a genuine call for unity, but with a barb: Abrams can forge common ground with all Americans, bar Trump.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.