It may still be going on, this first Trump State of the Union. Surely, there are people in the gallery he hasn’t introduced yet. And has he finished talking about MS-13? That was the second longest part of his speech, second only to taking credit for the economy. (Having become president in Year Seven of the recovery, Trump taking credit calls to mind Ann Richards’s line about George H.W. Bush: “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”)
SOTUs should be watched closely to discover what it is that the president thinks Americans should fear, or at least cast a watchful eye on. Trump devoted one sentence to Russia and China. Not one sentence each; one sentence for them both. ISIS drew a couple of minutes. MS-13 probably took up around eight minutes. Plainly a greater threat than the spread of Chinese authoritarianism or Russian anti-liberalism, not to mention climate change, which, in fact, Trump didn’t mention.
Inflating MS-13 to the status of a cosmic threat, of course, provided Trump with his nativist straw man, the fake-news raison d’être for his beautiful Border Wall, for expanding ICE so it can break up more families, and for keeping out immigrants and refugees from non-Nordic nations (as if anyone in Scandinavia actually wanted to come here these days). It was balm for his base.
The economic crowing was the part of the speech directed beyond the base, strategically placed upfront, before any normal people who may have been watching fell asleep. It’s the sum and substance of GOP electoral appeal going into the midterms: The economy is doing well and we cut your taxes (well, some of the taxes for some of you, and even if the cuts go away in a few years, that’s still a couple elections down the line). Highlighting the cuts is what any politically sentient administration would do, and it brings back painful memories of the Obama administration’s reluctance to tout the cuts it bestowed on taxpayers as part of its 2009 stimulus package. As union leader John L. Lewis once put it, in his inimitably and absurdly stilted manner, “He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted.”
The one surprise line in the speech that packed a wallop was Trump’s proposal to eviscerate an unbiased civil service. “I call on the Congress,” he said, "to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers—and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people."
That’s certainly something we can trust such cabinet stalwarts as Betsy DeVos, Jeff Sessions, and Scott Pruitt to do—right? Hidden away in the federal bureaucracy, in the depths of the deep state, there are secret cells of empiricists—and empiricism-phobia isn’t limited to Trump. Empiricism in all its guises—science, history, even just accurate measurement (which yields data, for instance, showing the crime rate among immigrants to be lower than that among the native born)—is the ism most corrosive to Republicanism generally, as the party descends ever deeper into myths of blood and soil. If cabinet secretaries can purify their departments by banishing the empiricists, as neatly as Fox News has banished news, the entire GOP will breathe more easily. And there’s a special prosecutor whose removal would certainly let a snarling president—recovering from his night of strained decorousness—breathe easier, too.