If a successful State of the Union address inspires your side to clap enthusiastically while making it difficult for your opponents not to join in, Trump’s was a success. It contained many lies, of course. And it falsely and viciously equated undocumented immigration with murder, as usual. But it offered a preview of how Trump, despite his unpopularity, could campaign effectively in 2020.
In 2016, Trump amended traditional Republican ideology in several key ways: He foregrounded his opposition to immigration, he de-emphasized cutting Social Security and Medicare, he attacked free trade, and he promised to end costly wars. In so doing, he jettisoned parts of the GOP agenda—free trade, entitlement reform, and an interventionist foreign policy—that enjoyed support among party elites but few ordinary voters. And by emphasizing immigration and trade while holding fast to the cultural agenda of the Christian right, he roused the GOP’s white, working-class base. This strategy helped him perform far better than most commentators expected when the general election began.
In Trump’s first two speeches to Congress, he deviated from this formula. In 2017, he spoke at length about his plans to repeal and replace Obamacare, a political loser. While Trump’s voters loathe Barack Obama, most Americans in both parties want to preserve the health-care protections he signed into law. In his State of the Union address last year, Trump hyped the tax cut he had signed the previous December. But that, too, was unpopular. Like the Obamacare repeal, upper-income tax cuts are a generic GOP cause that Trump had not placed at the center of his 2016 run. Both issues highlighted a core GOP weakness—the perception that it champions the rich at the expense of other Americans—which Trump had somewhat obscured during the campaign.