Even by State of the Union standards, that was a colossal waste of time. High on purple prose and racist dog-whistling, low on content.
Without hyperbole, there are 3 proposals in this State of the Union.
- $1.5T dollars in infrastructure spending
- A very detailed immigration plan
- End the “defense sequester”
Now, I have thoughts about each of these, but what is striking is that I caught no other policy proposals. To count as a policy proposal, I had to know either 1) its magnitude in monetary terms or 2) what the implementation would look like. The thing about directing his people to work on a plan to decrease drug costs? Not a policy. The thing about foreign assistance was marginal; but there was not enough meat for me to comment on so I didn’t list it. Standing tall for the flag was just pathos.
I didn’t go back and count Obama’s policy proposals, but I recall those speeches being full of them. It was a point of criticism for me, actually, that they were often divorced from what his Congress was willing or able to do. There was even a recurring joke that the proposal for better rail was for Joe Biden and, let’s be real, it was as true as it was a joke. The fact that this was mostly just dog-whistling, asserting America’s strength and touting a strong economy would be weird for another presidency. Its only not weird for this one because it we’ve come to expect so little of Trump.
This isn’t to say other things didn’t matter. The lines about standing for the flag foresage more hostility towards African Americans; hardly shocking, but worth making note of. And if this speech was an insight into how this Administration is weighing North Korea, in terms of its moral failings rather than the very real consequences for South Korea if we start a war, then Seoul is in peril. And the things he didn’t say—Russia, rising hate crimes, the scourge of murders with guns—matter too. But this was a speech largely without content.
As for his three proposals? Unsurprisingly, I am largely against.
$1.5T for infrastructure is badly timed. Trump was largely correct that the economy is doing well, though, that has little to do with Trump or Obama. Regardless, this is exactly when the government should be cutting spending to keep the assets market from overheating. A good way to do this? Keep taxes the same and bring down the debt. The economic policy being pursued is exactly opposite the standard macroeconomic recommendation. (Though, if the tepid applause is anything to go by, Congress will not pursue it.)
I am largely punting on the immigration plan. There will be higher quality analysis than I can do right now by other people, but suffice it to say I am unimpressed. Let me pick at a detail instead. “Protecting the nuclear family from the threat of chain migration” is an incredible sentence. Stripped of jargon, it says protecting mothers and fathers from their parents living in the same country as them. It is, I am given to understand, the greatest threat against the family since homosexuality was decriminalized in the 90s. Grandparents. Threat to the family.
The defense sequester was maligned in 2011 as a possible threat to readiness, but the evidence on that is scant. We could rehearse the statistics about the size of the military post-sequester; larger than the next 10, full of waste and unwanted programs, creaking under its own bureaucracy. We could demand an independent audit of the ways that has hurt readiness, though its hard to imagine it has. We could point out that there is literally no threat to our interests from a non-nuclear power that current spending levels doesn’t address and that conventional military readiness is probably somewhat secondary to our interests. But half the country really likes funding the military, so, sure, applause line.
For all that Trump is terrifying—and putting someone so racist and shortsighted at the bully pulpit should give anyone decent pause—he has very little to back up his rhetoric. He is all racism, pathos, and cheap TV stunts. The State of the Union Address as a format has always rewarded grandstanding, even for those who laid the ground for real policy discussions, but just as Trump is the hollow shell of a man, this was a hollow shell of a State of the Union Address. The State of the Union, no thanks to Trump is strong.
The state of his presidency is weak behind all the fronting.