Trump’s Hollow Call for Unity

A president who disdains acting presidential is unlikely to achieve much by relying on convention.

Donald Trump
Jim Young / Reuters

President Donald Trump says he will stress “unity” in his State of the Union address Tuesday. This is almost unavoidable. The words union and unity spring from the same word root. And it’s expected. Presidents are entrusted with husbanding unity, so a president calling for it in a State of the Union is like a groom toasting fidelity at his wedding dinner. On the other hand, Donald Trump doesn’t go in for a lot of the rote traditions of the presidency.

When Trump calls for unity, he runs the risk of being mocked by his own words. It smacks of acting “presidential,” a label he has avoided. “Sometimes they say he doesn’t act presidential,” the president said at a rally in 2017. “It’s so easy to act presidential, but that’s not gonna get it done.” Last year, when Peggy Noonan suggested he should be more presidential, the president acted out what that would look like at a rally. He stood artificially straight, moved in staccato like a robot, and dished out inoffensive pap in monotone, thanking the troops and asking God to bless America. “I could be presidential,” he joked before launching into his Disney Hall of Presidents routine. “You’d be so bored … This got us elected. If I came like a stiff, you guys wouldn’t be here tonight.”

The president knows what thrills his crowds, but he also knows that his appeal is about more than revving the engines in a good stadium show. The president’s stylistic departures are just the most visible aspect of a presidency dismantling the old order. A traditional president would not belittle his intelligence officers as “naive,” but Trump will if he disagrees with them. Trump won’t distance himself from an autocrat, such as Vladimir Putin, who interfered in the democratic process if he thinks embracing him is a good idea. This goes for autocrats in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Philippines as well. When Chief Justice John Roberts said the American tradition of an independent judiciary meant judges should not be identified by the president who appointed them, Trump overruled him. “Sorry Chief Justice John Roberts, but you do indeed have ‘Obama judges,’” he tweeted.

For the president’s supporters, these departures illustrate the president’s essential insight: The old codes hurt the country and hurt them. They are the white-glove traditions of swamp culture. Trump operates in the world as it is, not a phony world floating on the foam of Washington politesse.

So it’s a surprise to hear Trump call for unity. The president who has peeled the membrane of Washington customs is now relying on it.

The unity bubble of the State of the Union has been durable. Even in the heat of partisan fighting, the State of the Union is a sanctuary where everyone tries to get along. In January 1999, senators tried Bill Clinton’s impeachment case in the morning, and the president delivered his State of the Union across the Capitol in the House chamber that night. In 2011, just weeks after the shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords, senators paired up across party lines to sit with each other as a gesture of togetherness befitting the unity stirred by the occasion. The norms are mighty strong in a venue where sitting on your hands is the harshest response you can offer to your opponents who applaud their man hard enough to break a walnut.

Will the call to unity work? It’s not likely. An MMA fighter cannot pause a bout to appeal to Marquess of Queensberry Rules. Trump seemed to understand this idea that old forms can’t be grafted onto his approach when he expressed skepticism that his first-ever Oval Office address would change the dynamic in the fight over border-wall funding. Polls show he was right. Public opinion didn’t change.

Trump has already tested the conventional approach. Two years ago, he placed unity at the center of his address to Congress. He and his aides promoted the idea in advance of the speech, just as they are doing now. “I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength,” he said on February 28, 2017, “and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart.”

In the two years since that speech, the president has accumulated mountains of tweets and developed an extensive record in office—but he has not been accused of being a unifier. He has faced the opposite charge: that he works against unity to maintain his political base. His philosophy, said former Senator Bob Corker, “is based upon division, anger and resentment, and in some cases even hate … Instead of appealing to our better angels and trying to unite us like most people would try to do, the president tries to divide us.”

Though the State of the Union address puts everyone on their best behavior, it doesn’t erase their underlying views. Republicans will remember how little they were moved by Barack Obama’s lengthy remarks about unity in his 2015 State of the Union. “Finding common ground is what the American people sent us here to do,” said Speaker John Boehner in response, “but you wouldn’t know it from the president’s speech tonight.”

Unity can’t simply be asserted, and it can’t be a veiled demand that the other guy cry uncle. It has to be shown through its component parts: reconciliation, empathy, not immediately questioning your opponent’s motives, and restraining your own impulses. It has been this way from the start of the republic. Benjamin Franklin disagreed with parts of the new Constitution, but when he asked delegates at the founding convention to unify behind it, he explained why he put aside his personal criticisms: “The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.” To get a little, you’ve got to give a little.

Teddy Roosevelt wrote an entire essay on the conditions for unity. “Fellow-feeling, sympathy in the broadest sense, is the most important factor in producing a healthy political and social life,” he wrote. “Neither our national nor our local civic life can be what it should be unless it is marked by the fellow-feeling, the mutual kindness, the mutual respect, the sense of common duties and common interests, which arise when men take the trouble to understand one another, and to associate together for a common object.”

This all sounds quaint. These qualities are not prized in modern political combat, particularly by our realist president. This is evident in what he’s saying in real time. Even as he talks about unity, the president characterizes the Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi in the harshest terms, asserting on Face the Nation, “People [are] dying all over the country because of people like Nancy Pelosi … I think she is very bad for our country.” He also told the host, Margaret Brennan, that Pelosi “doesn’t mind human trafficking.”

Working toward unity might be a presidential norm, but President Trump has not let other norms, such as telling the truth, constrain his preferred path. You keep your unity, his supporters might argue. The GOP has unified around a strong economy, deregulation, tax cuts, dialogue with North Korea, tough talk with China, and a conservative judiciary that will influence American life well after Donald Trump has finished his second term. Why should the president bother with tending outdated modes that won’t accomplish his goals? Instead, he should focus on making progress. Calling for unity might look presidential, but as the president has so often said, acting presidential would just be an act.