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.
Read: The language of the State of the Union
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.