By calling for unity and appealing to bipartisanship and compromise President Trump hit many of the right chords for a State of the Union address. Unfortunately, the life span of what he said is probably rather short.
As in his two previous speeches before a joint session of Congress, President Trump chose to stick to the manuscript on Tuesday. And as a result Trump delivered what can be described as a fairly traditional State of the Union address instead of the typical presidential stream of consciousness that usually characterizes his speeches.
During his first address to a divided Congress, Trump did not insult or ridicule anyone, he did not threaten to annihilate a foreign country, he did not even declare a national security emergency in order to build his promised wall along the US border with Mexico. In fact, he did not even utter his campaign slogans “Make America Great Again” and “America First” once.
Instead, Trump’s speech at its core was one long call — interrupted by a fearmongering and dark passage on undocumented immigration, some Iran bashing, brief rebukes for stingy NATO allies and boasting about making them pay — to overcome partisan strife for the sake of a new national unity.
Ending the ‘stalemate’
Trump urged Congress to break the “political stalemate,” “bridge old divisions,” “heal old wounds” and to “adopt a spirit of compromise and cooperation.” Only together, went Trump’s argument to Congress, can America end the deep divisions tearing it apart. Only together can we solve the longstanding problems that plague millions of Americans like access to affordable healthcare or jobs that pay a living wage.
And guess what, Trump is right. He is right that only cooperation and compromise can overcome the political divisions in this country. He is right that lasting solutions to problems like America’s decrepit infrastructure, costly and inaccessible health care, its immigration system and many others can only be reached through bipartisan action and compromise.
The great divider
The problem is that Trump, as his record shows, is the last person who is interested in and capable of achieving real compromise. If there is anything the world has learned in his more than two years in office, it is that true compromise and bipartisanship are anathema to Trump. In fact, he has done more to divide the country than any of his recent predecessors.
Just before the speech, the New York Times reported that Trump held a private lunch for television anchors and delivered a blistering and at times personal attack on leading Democrats like Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. That’s hardly a recipe for bipartisan harmony.
A more consequential example of Trump’s unwillingness to reach compromises is just a few weeks old. Trying to force Democrats to fund his “big, beautiful wall” Trump triggered the longest government shutdown in US history regardless of the consequences his uncompromising stance had for millions of Americans.
Trump always had this “my way or the highway” approach — during his career as a real estate developer and during his time as president. Trump has said repeatedly that for him everything revolves around winning at all costs.
Tame Trump won’t last
To be sure, the words Trump spoke during his State of the Union evoked bipartisanship, unity and compromise. And to give credit where credit is due, Trump speechwriters crafted some clever and poignant bipartisan passages, for instance when Trump addressed the fact that more women serve in the new Congress than ever before. As a result some observers will probably conclude that Trump finally sounded presidential and that perhaps this speech could mark a turning point in his tenure.
Hope never dies. But let’s not again get carried away by one formal speech. According to everything we have learnt from Trump so far, the words uttered during the State of the Union do not reveal the real Trump. The real Trump is revealed daily on Twitter and by his actions, not biannually in a lofty and tame teleprompter addresses. Consequently his call for bipartisanship and compromise may last only until his next tweet.