Something is rotten in the state of our union.
The King in Orange, lurching towards fascism.
My habit is to read Donald Trump's speeches rather than listen to them. He's not what I would call a skilled orator in the conventional sense, but he is a decent social engineer and the brain has a few hundred million years more of evolution behind it at making sense of what it hears than it does making sense of what it reads. When we hear someone speaking, it's sometimes easier to paper over weirdness, to get caught up in the rhythm of it. We can't control the speed at which we take in each sentence and clause, so in order to parse what we're hearing now, we're more charitable in granting the premise of what we heard a second ago.
It's easier to fool someone, in certain specific ways, in speech than in text. It's easier to get someone to nod along to complete nonsense or to slide past something odious.
So I tend to read his speeches after the fact. It's just a better use of my time.
Usually by the time I can find a nice transcript of a major speech, I've heard a lot of discussion about its contents and I already know more or less what I'm going to see. My analysis tends to focus on things I think have gone unnoticed or underdiscussed.
This time, though? Most of the discussion around Donald's State of the Union address was around it. It focused more on the Democratic responses, the boos and the chanting of bills and Nancy Pelosi's ripping finale. I am cautious about making too much out of performative resistance by people who are way to quick to work with the White House, but I have to say that in terms of blunting his message, I think they succeeded?
And now that I've read the speech a few times... I'm glad. I'm really glad that the content was not the major focus of the reporting on the night. I think we need to talk about what he said, but doing so at a more reflective distance is preferable to simply having the news amplify and repeat what he said until the news cycle moves on.
When I look at this speech... it's not so much shock jock schlock like "American Carnage" , and it's taken me a couple of days to even wrap my head around how to describe what he's doing that different and why it worries me.
First, let me say the obvious: of course he didn't write it himself. But whoever wrote it, it represents a vision that is ascendant in the Trump White House and that we can expect to be executed through him.
Second, I'm not going to be talking about the pageantry and passion plays involving soldiers and families. I really wish we could do away with those things. They're ultimately distractions even from the messages they're intended to illustrate.
So what are those messages?
I'm going to zero in on two phrases in particular: "government schools" and "unlimited free health care to illegal aliens".
Donald spoke of children being "forced into failing government schools". When he says "government schools" what he means is public schools, schools that are funded by public money and accountable to the people. "Government schools" is a dog whistle common to Christian extremists who prefer the immersive indoctrination afforded by homeschooling or private religious schools under their control, and it has the added benefit of playing well to "small-government" conservatives.
Heck, you don't even have to be conservative for "government school" to sound icky. It sounds less like an educational institution than a re-education center, a place where the government is setting the curriculum from the top-down purely according to its own interests. A public school emphasizes that it's ultimately We The People — through concerned parents, community volunteers, elected school boards, and yes, the representatives of the people sent by the people to work for the people in our state capitols and Washington, D.C. — who decide what constitutes a proper education. "Public school" puts the people first; "government school" evokes something cold and distant and powerful.
Betsy DeVos, our appointed and confirmed Secretary of Education, is one of those people who wants to take all the money being given to "government schools" and redirect it to religious indoctrination camps where, ideally, she and her family and their allies will get to pocket it.
Then the line about Democrats wanting to take our tax dollars and provide "unlimited free health care to illegal aliens"... sure, on the surface it looks like there's nothing new there. It's the sort of thing he's been saying all along, and other Republicans have been saying since before he decided to be one.
But the phrasing matters, and the fact that he used it in the State of the Union address matters.
It's not just the phrasing, it's that he did this while promising that if we elect him and more Republicans, our healthcare will be "protected". Now, healthcare hasn't been a winning issue for Republicans. Their best ideas all went into the Affordable Care Act, which they voted against and then ran against and have chipped away at and tried to repeal all along. A lot of people are dissatisfied with the ACA, but "repeal and replace" hasn't worked as a rallying cry when they can't say what they'd replace it with and they keep trying to repeal it before working that out.
But in this framing, I don't think Donald Trump is trying to get voters to trust him on healthcare. I fear rather that he's trying to turn the voters against the Democrats, and even more to the point, to make Democrats afraid to run on healthcare. "Unlimited healthcare for illegal aliens" is not a winning message for a lot of Nice White People in the Mild Moderate Middle and making that the conversation pushes Democrats into a position where they either have to explain very clearly that they definitely will not be doing that (effectively pushing them to the right on immigration) or to make the case for why a non-discriminatory system would be better, at which point it becomes even easier to manufacture "See? They don't care about you. I'm putting America First." talking points.
Either tack by the Democrats weakens their message on healthcare, which in relative terms strengthens his. Many people in the Democratic coalition would be dispirited and alienated by equivocating on immigration in order to secure healthcare, and the same is true if healthcare is back-burnered for fear of these attacks.
The thing about these two phrases that I'm highlighting and the tactical rhetorical thinking behind them is that they both tie into a common thread that runs through the whole speech and that I believe was responsible for my unease in reading it. This is the same nationalism that Donald Trump has been peddling since day one, the same white supremacist rhetoric, but he and his team have better refined and calibrated the marketing pitch in a way that could be more appealing or at least less viscerally off-putting to the Mild Moderate Mild, to the people who are in tune with Republican racism as long as it's suitably genteel.
Hair Furor will never be genteel, but he may have worked his way around to how to appeal to the gentlefolk... or the herrenvolk as the Germans would say. That word has been used to justify a theory of republic in which only one dominant ethnonational group holds power. The 2020 State of the Union made overtures to US citizens of every race as part of a devil's bargain where we're told that things can be good — that things will be great — for us, as long as we understand it has to come at the expense of everyone else not us.
To me, the big story here is not Nancy Pelosi's one woman production of Much Ado About Nothing and it's not Trump's double-handed death grip on the podium as his muscles spasm and he blurts out something about a "Dercember desault", though I'm not ignoring any of those things.
The story is that in this speech, Donald and his party laid out a vision of the future where we become a smaller and more dangerous nation, one that is both more fearful and more frightful than it has ever been before.
The thing that gives me heart is that he wasn't able to keep message discipline for a measly two days, and that again people by and large paid more attention to the sideshow than the action in the center ring. That doesn't mean this vision is off the table, though. We still have to be concerned about it in the long term, and even some of his immediate follow-up actions point in the same direction.
For instance: he's simultaneously purging the NSC of people who are insufficiently loyal to him and making it smaller, easier to control and ignore. He's suspending shipment of arms (approved and paid for!) to Ukraine. He's using the DHS to punish global travelers from blue New York, the home state that in his eyes has betrayed him.
He's reportedly workshopping an executive order to ban anything but "classical" architecture in federal buildings, which might sound ridiculous and petty, until you understand that to white nationalists, the Greco-Roman influence represents the foundation of superior "Western"/"European" culture and more modern styles are seen as "degenerate" influences.
The next nine months, we are going to see the march to fascism increase its pace while the rhetoric used to sell it is angled in order to put the Democrats on the defensive... defending "government schools", defending "unlimited free healthcare for illegals", etc. Redefining the terms and putting the Democrats on the defensive has often been a winning move for the conservatives, but as usual Donald Trump is finding ways to out-GOP the GOP. He dares to take it further, faster, while simultaneously daring anyone to say anything.
The state of our union is... wrong.
Thanks as ever for your analysis on this stuff!
(possible typo: missing "not" in "I'm really glad that the content was the major focus of the reporting on the night.")