A reaction to the State of the Union

President Donald Trump’s 2018 State of the Union began by painting the previous year as a success. The hardships that took place during 2017 like the hurricanes and wildfires were conveyed as evidence of America’s strength.

There is a general attitude about politicians that acknowledges that they will obviously alter the truth to fit their interests. Misrepresentation takes place on both sides of the political aisle. What makes President Trump’s politics unique is that he taps into a specific narrative; he is not concerned with lining up with proper interpretations of data, but with presenting all facts in such a way that they fit this broader narrative. This narrative pulls from working class perception, conservative politics, and nationalist politics, and has no problem holding contradictory views because of this.

Holding both the conservative and libertarian views that government action and taxes are an intrinsic evil, and the nationalistic perception that halting immigration and occupying countries overseas are an intrinsic good, President Trump spoke to a specific perception of America. A lot of these notions are contradictory, but are sustained purely by a narrative.

By immediately presenting soldiers, firefighters, and police officers as the heroes of America, with crime and disrespect for authority as the enemies, President Trump spoke to his cultural base. A few minutes later, he then condemned government spending and bureaucracy: both necessarily facets for the military, the fire department, or the police force to function.

Throughout the State of the Union, Trump used an almost Messianic narrative when discussing statistics regarding economic change and crime – things once were bad, but now are good. This narrative explicitly disregards the nature of trends that Trump took credit for, like African-American unemployment which has been declining at record pace since the Obama administration, or rising wages which have been on an upward trajectory since the 1990s.

In Trump’s narrative, crime and unemployment are going down due to his administration, despite being at record lows already. This is why his 2017 speech portrayed the state of the Union as “American carnage.” Despite that statement being demonstratively false, it primed his core audience for a 2018 State of the Union that shows improvement.

In this vein, President Trump claimed that 2.4 million jobs were created “since the election.” This was an intentionally deceptive comment, as the president elect does not enter office immediately after the election. In fact, according to FactCheck.org, more than half a million jobs were created after the election but before the inauguration (2).

Trump’s politics are a very specific type of politics. While establishment Democrats and Republicans are forced to work within the rules of reality, Donald Trump’s specific type of populism only needs to concern itself with the perception of his base. This is why the little things matter in this administration. This is why Trump comments on things outside of politics: he’s a candidate built off of a culture war. He needs to both satisfy white working class populism while also satisfying the interests of bigger business; he does this by being an entertainer, as he has always been.

This is why he begins the address with a façade of bipartisanship, while also having been explicitly partisan throughout the year. He is narrating the previous year: he was trying to fix things, and the Democrats attempted to block him. This is also why he made a small comment about the Take A Knee movement following his description of a young boy putting American flags on the graves of veterans – he’s not just making petty jabs, he’s putting his energy in the center of a culture war. Once we begin arguing about culture, we’ve left discussions that rely on facts and instead enter discussions based off perceptions and subjective experience, and executive and legislative level politics is not the place to begin having that discussion.

While many pundits and political commentators, like Jonathan Martin of New York Times (1), have claimed that the State of the Union was a more presidential and less populist demeanor, the reality is that he is simply using a calmer tone to convey the same agenda.


1. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/30/us/politics/state-of-the-union-2018-transcript.html

2. https://www.factcheck.org/2018/01/factchecking-trumps-state-union/

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