State of the Union: Trump’s promised “call for unity” buried under avalanche of banalities

Trump showed he could – just about – read off a teleprompter without tripping over his tie. But we didn’t really learn anything new.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“America is winning each and every day … members of Congress, the state of our union is–” Donald Trump paused as if seeing the words for the first time, which he very well might have been, before hitting the inevitable “ –strong.”

The president is at his tamest and dullest when reading off an autocue – perhaps because the concentration it takes him to read for such extended periods takes up all his bandwidth – and the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, the second of his presidency, was no exception. The headline news that Trump intended to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un for a second summit, to be held in Vietnam at the end of February had already been leaked, by the president himself, and Trump doesn’t really make news when he’s not riffing.

The speech was mostly a rambling catalogue of Trump classics. He boasted of eliminating the Obamacare individual mandate, took credit for the economy’s health and the surprisingly good recent jobs numbers, and lauded his lifting of restrictions on oil and natural gas. He lasciviously described only crimes committed by immigrants, and repeated his lie about gang members entering the US via the Southern border (even Fox News knows that isn’t true). He promised to build the wall. “Simply put: walls work, and walls save lives,” he said. Blah, blah.

Even in a prepared text set up and promoted as a “call to unity,” Trump couldn’t help but launch political assaults – against Democrats, and against the proliferating investigations into wrongdoing by his campaign, his transition team, his foundation, his businesses, and more besides. “An economic miracle is taking place in the United States,” he said, “and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.” Behind him, even Nancy Pelosi’s ironclad self-control couldn’t stop her from scoffing.

Attempts by Trumpworld in the run-up to the speech to paint the address as a “message of bipartisan unity” – Kellyanne Conway, for example, patronisingly spelt out the word “comity” twice for reporters on Monday – were already being mocked by the time he took the stage on Tuesday. “Unity is so important. I want to unify everyone,” Late Night host Stephen Colbert said, in an imitation of the president. “From the heroes who want to keep our borders safe, to Nancy Pelosi... who wants to see the caravan murder you with a knife made of drugs.”

As if the point needed further illustration, the New York Times on Tuesday afternoon showed that, far from encompassing the spirit of unity his harried and dishonest mouthpieces have tried to present, the president over the last few days has in fact “groused about the text, complaining that it is too gentle on Democrats”.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with a group of other female Democratic representatives, all wore “suffragette white” for the speech to honour the movement that campaigned successfully to get women the vote in the US in 1920 – 99 years ago – and also to send a message to Trump. Positioned directly in Trump's eyeline, the group of women in white were unmissable. Many of them sat stony-faced, as if daring Trump to divert from the script and speak to them directly.

A genuinely sweet moment came when the president said that “all Americans can be proud that there are more women in the workforce.” That got the white-clad Democrats cheering and on their feet, leading to a moment of levity; the tension in the air seemed briefly to break when Trump, almost self-aware, took credit that under his presidency there are now “more women serving in Congress than ever before”. It was as close to a thaw as the evening would bring, and was a brief reminder that while Trump might not know much, he knows how to read a room. “That’s great. And congratulations. That’s great,” Trump said, as the Democrats in white chanted “USA! USA!”

Another nice moment came when the chamber sang Happy Birthday to a man who survived both the Holocaust and the anti-Semitic attack last year on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. But that was about it.

If the president was still smarting from his bruising fold to Pelosi which ended the longest government shutdown in US history last week, he didn’t show it much. But it must have been unnerving for him that, newly-minted as speaker of the House of Representatives, she sat for the speech in the speaker’s chair directly above him.

When Trump brought up the “migrant caravan,” a favoured line of his that he honed during the mid-term election campaign, some Democrats audibly groaned – until Pelosi, completely in control of her caucus, silenced them with a careful wave; there was more authority in that simple gesture than the president, pompous and needy, managed in his whole speech.

Earlier in the day day, on the floor of the Senate, minority leader Chuck Schumer dismissed as “blatant hypocrisy” Trump’s laughable attempt to frame himself as the one calling for unity. “It seems every year the president wakes up and discovers the desire for unity on the morning of the State of the Union,” Schumer said.

In fact, it doesn’t even seem that Trump even managed that. At a lunch for television anchors on Tuesday Trump called Schumer a “nasty son of a bitch” and former Vice-President Joe Biden “dumb” – and also made a snide comment about Senator John McCain, who died of cancer six months ago – the Times reported.

Some news outlets breathlessly took him at his word nonetheless, reporting that Trump was “to pitch unity” in his address. People, can we please, finally, stop doing that now? Mockery is all Trump has truly earned: so far, he has proved to deserve neither credit nor faith. His words are largely empty: time and again, they signify nothing. Tonight was little different.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.